Campaign ad spending in Minnesota falls short of expectations

Bachmann ad
A screen shot from a Michele Bachmann campaign ad.
From Bachmann's campaign video

Industry analysts say the amount of money spent nationally on political ads likely set a record this year, but the extent of ad splurge in Minnesota is less clear and some media experts say it was smaller than expected.

Evan Tracey, president of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, an independent research firm which tracks and analyzes political ads, said that nationally, campaigns and third-party groups probably spent about $2.5 billion on TV ads alone. He said that tops each of the previous two elections by $100 million or more.

"The last midterm you saw about $2.2 billion on broadcast TV," Tracey said. "In the last presidential election in 2008, that number was about $2.4 billion."

Tracey attributes this year's record-setting national numbers in part to the number of competitive races out there. But to the chagrin of some local broadcasters, there weren't big contests like that in Minnesota.

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"The windfalls come in big markets where there are races that truly bring national attention, and this year in Minnesota, we don't have those races," said Robert Hubbard, president of KSTP Television.

Hubbar said broadcasters initially expected that the contest between GOP incumbent Michele Bachmann and DFL candidate Tarryl Clark in the 6th District would be close. That meant independent expenditure groups would be pumping lots of money into it.

"The windfalls come in big markets where there are races that truly bring national attention, and this year in Minnesota, we don't have those races."

However, Bachmann maintained a convincing lead in the polls and the third-party groups didn't need to jump in, especially since Bachmann had raised so much money herself. She pulled in more fundraising dollars than any other House candidate.

Lack of spending by outside groups was disappointing for another reason -- they have to pay more.

Broadcasters can charge third-party expenditure groups premium ad rates. That was the case for the relatively minor spending by outside groups in the governor's race.

But Hubbard said for the most part, candidates spent the bulk of the money. And by law, they get to pay the lowest price for ads.

"We are obligated to sell them commercial time at the same rate that we would sell to our best customers, those who buy ads year round, day in and day out," Hubbard said. "So it's not the kind of windfall you'd expect."

Hubbard gets no sympathy from John Rash, an editorial writer with the Minneapolis Star Tribune and media analyst for WCCO Radio.

"Most media organizations would like to be treated this unfairly," Rash said.

Rash is a prominent media analyst in the Twin Cities. It's not yet clear how much Twin Cities TV stations pulled in from political ads, but industry insiders peg it in the range of $20 million. Rash said even if the political ad spending was lower than expected, that revenue gave broadcasters an important boost.

"Anytime, particularly in the midst of a national recession that there's significant spending by an industry, this time it just happens to be politics, it's a net plus for what are often struggling radio and television stations," he said. "Clearly it helped local affiliate's bottom lines. It may not have peaked the way it theoretically could have if the races were tighter, but it still was badly needed money at a badly needed time,"

At Campaign Media Analysis Group, Evan Tracey goes so far as to say that the political ad spending was like a stimulus package for TV broadcasters, but he's not convinced they were desperate.

"When you talk to them, they will tell you that their business was starting to kick in before the election kicked into high gear," Tracey said. "Some of the other segments like automotive and auto dealers were really starting to come back."

Tracey said in the future, TV stations may actually stand to benefit less from ad spending. As audiences gravitate increasingly online and to cable, campaign dollars will likely follow.