In Depth

Super PACs Could Drive Total 2012 Election Spending to $9.8 Billion -- Report Projects Cable Networks Will Be Flush With Super PAC Money

By Cotton Delo
Advertising Age

The muscle of super PACs and their unhindered spending power has been observed in some of the early Republican presidential primary contests, but a new report aims to measure what impact they'll have across the election cycle.

A study by the research firm Borrell Associates projects that election spending in 2012 will reach a stratospheric $9.8 billion, vs. about $7 billion in 2008. (The figures include 13,000 statewide, congressional and municipal races, as well as the presidential election.) Spending by PACs, national political party committees, and the super PACs is projected to be $4.76 billion, or 48% of all spending. Super PACs were created by the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, in which it determined that spending by corporations and unions can't be restricted.

Cable TV is the main beneficiary of the anticipated tidal wave of campaign spending, as inventory on the networks will most likely be bought up earlier, driving TV buyers to spend their money elsewhere, according to Kip Cassino, Borrell's exec VP. The report estimates that $468 million was spent on cable in 2008 and that the number will roughly double this year.

Borrell also expects to see more municipal candidates, such as aspiring school-board and city-council members, vying for TV time, as lower levels of political office rachet up their campaign spending from cycle to cycle.

"The guys who used to just worry about potluck suppers are now buying TV space," Mr. Cassino said.

Online spending is also expected to get a huge bump and is projected to reach $159.2 million, a sixfold increase from 2008, though it would still represent only 1.5% of overall campaign spending. (Some political strategists estimate that it will be higher for many races this cycle, approaching 12%.)

Spending on paid search is projected to rise, because buying up Google keywords with opponents names' and other campaign buzzwords has become a basic step in the political playbook, though paid search's share of online spending could fall to about one-third from 49% in 2008. Meanwhile, targeted display ads are projected to get a larger share, approaching 30%, as candidates look to hone digital messaging for specific audiences.

As for the states most likely to suffer from political ad fatigue? Virginia and Florida rank in the top 12 for every category of spending in the report (including total and per-voter). The Orlando, Miami and Tampa media markets could get $150 million to $175 million each in the course of the election cycle, according to the report, and the January GOP primary may foreshadow a taste of what's to come. Winner Mitt Romney's super PAC blanketed the state with Newt Gingrich attack ads and outspent his opponents, though Mr. Gingrich's super PAC and the labor union AFSCME, which supports President Obama, battled back with anti-Romney ads. Estimates from the campaigns put the spending on behalf of those parties at over $10 million in just one week.