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Political Spending 'Arms Race' Makes It A Good Year For TV Stations

Nixon attack ad.jpg
(via Jay Nixon campaign website video)

It’s estimated that TV stations’ political ad revenues were around $2.6 billion last year – a 68 percent increase from just 4 years ago.

This was the first big election since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010 that declared corporations to be people and money to be speech. The ruling made 2012 a good year for TV stations that get paid to air political ads.

“It was a very good year," University of Missouri-St. Louis political scientist Dave Robertson said. "Particularly in the swing states like Ohio, like Nevada like Florida – where lots of ads appeared on the air. This has been a great help to the media strapped for advertisers in the past year.  The recession was a terrible blow. This hasn’t helped newspapers that much, but television has really benefited."

Citizens United

But Missouri was not a presidential swing state this year, and so TV stations didn’t get the presidential ad spending they’re used to. But things have changed after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling. This was really the first big election after that decision. Was that make up for the loss in presidential spending?

"A couple of things about that. First, what made up for that loss is that we had a heck of a contest for the U.S. Senate that generated a lot of money and a big money contest for the governor," Robertson said. "So all in all, I think TV can’t complain much about the revenue they got."

McCaskill for Missouri spent over $19 million to beat Republican Todd Akin. Nixon spent $15.5 million to best Republican Dave Spence. Neither of the two races were even close in the end.


"Now, If you step back,  you can’t say directly that Super PAC spending and money that corporations could spend drove this spending," Robertson said. "In the House races, there was a lot of that. But in the Senate race, two things that have been around for a long time drove that:

First, incumbents that can generate a lot of fundraising – and that was true for incumbents Jay Nixon and Claire McCaskill. There also were some quite-well-funded candidates who could pay for their own ads, like Dave Spence. Those things have been around for a long time.

But what Citizens United seems to have done is to drive incumbents and anybody else who wants to compete to get into an arms race for money, because you never know how much money is going to be coming in on the opposite side. And some money did come in opposed to Claire McCaskill and even Jay Nixon. So you have to worry about the ads that are going to come in that are not coming in from your opponent directly. That’s where the arms race is really driving this. And it’s going to get worse before it gets better."

Getting Better?

Well, is it going to get "better?" Is this going to keep going indefinitely or what is the breaking point here?

"In politics things can change quickly," Robertson said. "But I don’t see anything changing in terms of Super PAC spending going into the 2014 elections."

  • Click here to check out the other installments in our “A Good Year” series.

Follow Chris McDaniel on Twitter@csmcdaniel

  • See more stories on politics and policy from St. Louis Public Radio, the St. Louis Beacon and Nine Network of Public Media at BeyondNovember.org.

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