Super Bowl Ads Vs. Political Campaigns

Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas speaks during a January 2009 aviation industry forum. i i

Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas speaks during a January 2009 aviation industry forum in Little Rock, Ark. Lincoln might be facing the toughest U.S. Senate race for a Democrat this year — which will be even tougher if her opposition receives generous donations from corporations per the recent Supreme Court ruling. Danny Johnston/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Danny Johnston/AP
Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas speaks during a January 2009 aviation industry forum.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas speaks during a January 2009 aviation industry forum in Little Rock, Ark. Lincoln might be facing the toughest U.S. Senate race for a Democrat this year — which will be even tougher if her opposition receives generous donations from corporations per the recent Supreme Court ruling.

Danny Johnston/AP

It would hardly be a Super Bowl weekend without a story about Super Bowl ads. But this year's story is a little different, thanks to the Supreme Court. The court last month gave corporations a new way to spend their advertising dollars — backing their favorite political candidates.

$2.5 Million

The going rate for Super Bowl ads is about $2.5 million, according to Broadcasting and Cable magazine.

That $2.5 million buys you just 30 seconds. Which raises the question: How far would $2.5 million go in politics?

Evan Tracey, president of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, a firm that tracks political ads on TV, says that amount of money "could go a long way in a competitive congressional race this year."

Corporate Profits And Campaign Spending

A cursory look at the potential spending power of corporations in future political campaigns.

$19.3 billion = Exxon Mobil profits, 2009
$5.9 billion = Total spending by presidential candidates, congressional candidates, political parties and outside groups, 2007-08
$747.8 million = Obama campaign fundraising, 2007-08
$330.4 million = Total of all fundraising by candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and Legislature, California, 2006
$50.3 million = Total raised by candidates for state high courts and appellate courts nationwide, 2008
$39.6 million = Amount spent by the Service Employees International Union on ads in congressional and presidential races, 2007-08
$27.4 million = Lobbying expenditures reported by Exxon Mobil, 2009
$3.2 million = Contributions to federal candidates by American Bankers Association political action committee and individual donors, 2007-08
$50,233 = Median household income, 2007
$26,273 = Average yearly tuition and fees at a private four-year college

Source: Exxon Mobil, Federal Election Commission, National Institute on Money in State Politics, Center for Responsive Politics, U.S. Census, College Board, Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy

And there are going to be plenty of competitive races — in the House and in the Senate.

Trouble For Candidates In Tough Races

Tracey mentioned Arkansas, where Blanche Lincoln may be the most vulnerable Senate Democrat this year. "You could certainly get, you know, two or three months of a pretty consistent message out there," Tracey says, on how far $2.5 million would go in that market.

This is hardly great news for Lincoln, who had $5 million on hand — on Jan. 1.

That was pretty good, until 20 days later, when the Supreme Court opened the door for corporate spending. Now that $5 million is less likely to scare off challengers.

Buy A Seat In The House Or A State Senator

In fact, advertising budgets in business just dwarf the ad budgets in politics.

That became very clear in the numbers that Sheila Krumholz laid out. She's director of the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political money, and explains how much congressional candidates usually shell out for their campaigns.

"The average winner in the last cycle spent nearly $1.4 million for a seat in the House," Krumholz says.

Senate races don't always cost that much more.

"At least in Wyoming, the least expensive winning campaign in 2008 — John Barrasso spent just under $2 million," Krumholz says.

If that seems cheap, think about state politics. The Institute on Money in State Politics does. Its director is Edwin Bender. "The numbers that we've just crunched show that you could buy, in a significant number of states, half the Senate seats," Bender says. "So by providing $2.5 million you could effectively — theoretically, I guess — gain control of the legislature in a number of states."

And in most states, it isn't even all that expensive to get elected governor — at least, not by corporate standards. "Say a third of winning gubernatorial campaigns could exist easily on $2.5 million," Bender says.

Campaigns And Corporate Strategy

A Century Of U.S. Campaign Finance Law

But really, corporations would rather promote themselves than somebody else. And Betsy Gelb, marketing professor at the University of Houston, says some corporations might choose to advertise a candidate for the same reason they advertise on the Super Bowl — to bask in the glow.

"If you associate yourself with what they like," Gelb says, "could be a football team, could be the Super Bowl, could be a candidate — the assumption is disproportionately they're going to like you."

Gelb says it wouldn't be a common strategy.

But she could see it happening with, say, someone advertising business to business and wanting to capture the appeal of a pro-business candidate.

It's just another way that an investment in politics might make good business sense.

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