The election so far in the Twin Cities in a nutshell: More than $13 million, at least 11,634 television spots, eight races and two constitutional amendments.
Four weeks from the general election, those figures offer a snapshot of the cash that's being poured into the Twin Cities television market on ads targeting the top of the ticket down to the legislative races.
Using documents posted for the first time on the Federal Communications Commission website, MPR News analyzed political ad buys through Oct. 5 at WCCO, KARE11, KSTP, FOX9 and, for groups working to defeat or promote two constitutional amendments, WFTC.
While $13 million may seem staggering — and that figure is certain to climb as Election Day gets closer — it pales in comparison to the $42 million spent in the Twin Cities broadcast market in 2008, a presidential election year when Democratic Sen. Al Franken and former Republican Sen. Norm Coleman were engaged in a high stakes battle to represent Minnesota in the U.S. Senate.
Still, the data underscore Minnesota's most competitive races and provide a window into campaign strategy. Take DFLer Mike Obermueller, who is running against Republican Rep. John Kline in Minnesota's 2nd Congressional District. During the third week of October, he'll be running ads between episodes of the Bold and the Beautiful, Dr. Phil and the Ellen DeGeneres show — a clear sign he's targeting the female vote.
The numbers come with some important caveats. Television markets in other parts of the state are excluded from the analysis because they are too small to comply with the new FCC reporting requirements. Comcast, the cable TV company that serves the Twin Cities, is also exempt from the reporting rules.
Finally, ad buys by groups involved in promoting or opposing two constitutional amendments are incomplete. While KARE11 and FOX9 are making that information public, WCCO and KSTP are not.
CONGRESSIONAL RACES ATTRACT THE MOST CASH
All told, candidates and third-party political groups have committed at least $7 million to the state's congressional races — a sum that far outpaces the $1.7 million spent targeting the presidential race or the roughly $550,000 Sen. Amy Klobuchar so far plans to spend on her race.
• Graph: Political ad spending in Minnesota
The hotspot for all this cash is in the 8th Congressional District where Republican Rep. Chip Cravaack is being challenged by Democrat Rick Nolan.
There, candidates and political groups so far plan to spend $3.2 million through Election Day in the Twin Cities market alone. In fact, the Wesleyan Media Project, which analyzes political advertising, named the contest the fifth-most expensive in the country. It's considered a "pure toss-up" by the Rothenberg Political Report.
That's a lot of money for a district that hasn't always been so competitive, said Aaron Brown, who writes MinnesotaBrown.com, a blog that follows politics in the region, and who is active in the DFL party.
Democrats are still smarting from former Rep. Jim Oberstar's loss in 2010 and see this as an important opportunity to take back that seat, Brown said. And as with many freshman lawmakers, Cravaack is vulnerable.
But this race could also define the long-term political future of the district, said Brown.
If Cravaack is re-elected "he's going to be a very difficult candidate to defeat in the future," Brown said. "And I think everyone knows that because he'll be able to build on institutional advantages. You form relationships in the district and people view you as more inevitable."
Most of the ads are airing not in the DFL stronghold around Duluth, but in the southern part of the district including Chisago and Pine counties — an area molded by recent demographic shifts and squarely in the Twin Cities market.
"About half of this district's voters live in the Twin Cities media market," Brown said. "And more than that, the half that lives in that southern portion are the swing voters, the more conservative voters — Cravaack's base."
All that money being spent in the Twin Cities market just goes to show that this race will be won or lost in the southern part of the district, Brown said.
OUTSIDE GROUPS SPENDING MOST
Though the 8th Congressional District is competitive and expensive, it's not the candidates that are spending most of the ad cash; it is third-party political groups keen on keeping Cravaack in office or installing Nolan in Washington.
So far, these groups have committed nearly $3 million to pay for more than 3,000 ads. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, backing Nolan, says it has so far spent $600,000 on the race, but has plans to spend $2.6 million in the Twin Cities market between now and Election Day, some of it going to races in Wisconsin.
*Spending by groups supporting and opposing constitutional amendments is incomplete.
• Graph: Political ad spending in Minnesota
The National Republican Congressional Committee, backing Cravaack, has plans to spend $1.2 million. And a coalition of Democratic super PACs and unions has put a combined $770,000 behind Nolan so far.
Mike Franz, who is co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, said buying ads is about the only thing these outside groups can do to influence an election, which frees candidates to spend on other campaign efforts.
"They don't have an infrastructure on the ground to reach out to voters like candidates do, so they just buy ads," he said. "In some places, you might see them spending the majority of the money on ads and the candidates are doing other things."
To some degree, the presidential campaign is experiencing a similar trend. President Barack Obama is largely financing his own advertisements, and as of Oct. 5, his buys in Minnesota have been limited to cable.
But third-party conservative groups, such as Americans for Prosperity and the American Future Fund, have put $1.6 million into Twin Cities broadcast market for ads critical of Obama's record.
That may seen counterintuitive given Obama is expected to win Minnesota. But the Twin Cities market has the unusual advantage of bumping up against two competitive states: Wisconsin and Iowa. Outside political groups are getting more bang for their buck here, Franz said.
"This presidential election is really a mobilization election in many ways, it's not about reaching in and persuading undecideds because there aren't really many," said Franz. "When these super PACs are spending money in the presidential race even in a market like Minneapolis, but the intention is to convince Wisconsin voters, that's not lost money in Minnesota because it might bring out supporters to vote in the congressional and Senate races."
GOOD FOR TV's BOTTOM LINE?
With all that cash, it would seem that television stations must be making a killing off election season.
To some extent, it's true that stations are doing better as a result of the massive buys made by wealthy third-party political groups, said Greg Skall who is counsel for the Minnesota Broadcasters Association. With the economy struggling, advertising overall has been down and political spots help fill the revenue gap.
However, television stations are also required to offer candidates the lowest rate they would give their most favored advertisers, Skall explained. In that regard, political season is ill-timed for the television industry because it coincides with the Christmas selling season.
"Just at peak demand, along comes political advertising...and they start demanding lowest-unit charge at a time when stations are counting on the premium they get from the Christmas selling season in order the make the year," Skall said. "In a sense, and in normal times, broadcasters are really sacrificing some in order to serve the political process."
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