A new analysis shows that in the deluge of TV ads in the early voting states for the Republican presidential primaries, nearly half of the ads are coming not from the candidates but from superPACs — the new breed of political committees that raise unregulated money.
Political scientists at Wesleyan University in Connecticut found that so far, there have been about the same number of GOP primary ads as there were four years ago.
What's different — and different in a big way — is the role of outside money groups, mostly superPACs, says Erika Franklin Fowler, a director of the Wesleyan Media Project.
"They went from about 3 percent of total ad airings in the 2008 race to almost half, about 44 percent, in 2012," she says.
SuperPACs are creations of several recent legal rulings, including the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision in 2010. A superPAC can raise unlimited money from corporations, unions and the wealthy. The candidate can help raise that money, but the candidate and the superPAC cannot coordinate their messages.
Fowler says that once superPACs became possible, they changed the game in the 2010 congressional races.
"2010 was a record-breaking year in terms of political advertising, and we expect 2012 to shatter those records," Fowler says.
On The Air
Right now, the records are being tested by a superPAC supporting former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Take Florida, which holds its GOP primary on Tuesday. There, the pro-Romney superPAC Restore Our Future has been on the air 6,900 times.
Most of the ads are negative. For example, one ad blasts former House Speaker Newt Gingrich: "On leadership and character, Gingrich is no Ronald Reagan."
The superPAC accounts for more than half of all the pro-Romney ads. And it compares with 210 ads — total — from Gingrich and a pro-Gingrich superPAC.
These ad totals come from a media group called Kantar Media/CMAG.
"The voters there [in Florida] are getting primarily one-sided flows of information with pro-Romney arguments and very little on the Gingrich side to counteract those," Fowler says.
But at the pro-Gingrich superPAC, consultant Rick Tyler says Gingrich is still better off with friends who are not bound by the $2,500 limit that applies to old-fashioned, direct campaign contributions — friends like Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, who recently gave the superPAC $10 million.
"Let's say we were to get rid of superPACs and keep everything the same where the candidates couldn't raise money," Tyler says. "There is no constitutional reason why Mitt Romney couldn't just write a check."
But even with that kind of money flying around in the GOP primaries, other political messengers are also going on TV.
"Tell President Obama, American workers aren't pawns in your political games," runs one ad from Americans for Prosperity. It's not a superPAC, but a nonprofit group backed by conservative industrialists David and Charles Koch. Nonprofits don't have to disclose their donors.
Over the past 13 months, Americans for Prosperity has run 5,200 spots in battleground states.
The Obama re-election campaign has also been on the air a little bit — in fact, referring to the Koch brothers as "secretive oil billionaires."
Fowler says those ads also appeared in battleground states, where the general election will be decided.
"The Obama campaign likes to talk about [how] they take a national approach to the campaign," Fowler says. "But you know, early advertising placement certainly tells a little bit about their hand."
And Tuesday, we'll get a better look at the hand of the superPACs. It's time for them to disclose their donors to the Federal Election Commission.
For most of the superPACs, it will be the first time they reveal where their money has been coming from.