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Politics and Government

Campaign ads in Colorado: Why they matter and what they tell you about the candidates

The Colorado Sun is tracking who is spending how much, and on which candidates and issues, in the run up to the Nov. 6 election.

A collage of screenshots of campaign TV ads from Jared Polis, left, and Walker Stapleton. (Screenshots)
  • Credibility:

If you watch TV, you’ve seen the ads: Radicalifornia, missed meetings, high taxes, and on and on.

And it isn’t just the race for governor. There’s the 6th Congressional District, state Senate seats and ballot initiatives.

If you watched all the political ads booked so far this year, it would take nearly 68 straight days. That’s more than $38 million spent on television advertising this election cycle, with plenty more screen time to be sold.

The Colorado Sun is tracking who is spending how much, and on which candidates and issues, in the run up to the Nov. 6 election.

Here’s why it’s important:

Why take such a detailed look at political TV advertising?

For several reasons:

  • TV advertising remains a major expense for most campaigns. In the 2014 midterms, candidates for governor and federal contests nationwide spent $1.4 billion on TV ads, according to the Wesleyan Media Project, which studies political TV advertising.
  • Tracking TV advertising is one of the best ways to keep tabs on dark money in politics. For instance, The Colorado Sun was the first to report on a nonprofit, Colorado Economic Leadership Fund, spending more than $621,000 on cable TV ads favoring Republicans in four state Senate districts. Because the ads don’t specifically say “vote for” the candidates, the group doesn’t have to register with the Secretary of State or report its spending there.
  • If you watch TV, you’re being pummeled by these ads. And more and more of them, Wesleyan and the Sun research finds, aren’t purchased by candidates. They come from outside groups aiming to influence your vote.

How do you track TV ad spending?

Using the Federal Communications Commission public documents site, we find contracts filed with Colorado TV stations and two cable networks, Comcast Spotlight in Denver and Colorado Springs and Bresnan Communications in Grand Junction.

Information from the contracts – advertiser, dates of the contract, amount spent, number of spots, etc. – is entered into a database.

Is everything included in your analysis?

Probably not. There are likely smaller cable networks and perhaps smaller stations that this analysis isn’t capturing. And stations don’t always file these contracts immediately.

Also, federal law only requires contracts for outside spending groups to be filed in federal contests. Colorado Public Radio’s Ben Markus did a great piece about this earlier this year.

A lot of stations do file reports from groups such as super PACs airing ads opposing the two gubernatorial candidates or advertising about ballot initiatives. But the major Denver stations – where a significant portion of this money is being spent – don’t file these PAC contracts because federal law doesn’t require it.

That’s a loophole the Colorado legislature could fix by passing a law to require stations to file such contracts with the FCC.

What can you really learn from looking at these contracts?

Lots of things, large and small:

  • How much is being spent by campaigns and the number of spots.
  • What regions where campaigns are spending. Is it just Denver or are they aiming for Colorado Springs, Grand Junction and even Durango via Albuquerque TV stations?
  • Which outside groups are getting involved in a campaign. Often a new super PAC shows up in TV ad disclosures, even if the contract amount isn’t disclosed, before it shows up in state or federal campaign finance filings.
  • Sometimes canceled, transferred or significantly changed ad contracts indicate a larger political shift. In October 2014, for instance, the Democratic Attorneys General Association transferred its contracts supporting the Democratic nominee to a group advertising in a different contest. It was a clear sign the DAGA had given up on its nominee in Colorado (and he lost).
  • How much candidates and outside groups are spending to air spots on Broncos or World Series games. Those 30-second spots can cost up to $80,000. But presumably they reach an engaged audience.

Why are there so many negative ads?

That’s a great question.

When you see a negative ad, pay attention to who’s paying for it. Typically, it isn’t a candidate. It’s an outside group, often a big-spending super PAC prohibited from coordinating with the candidate, that’s doing the dirty work.

A screenshot from a negative Congressional Leadership Fund ad blasting Democrat Jason Crow. Crow and his campaign have pushed back vehemently against the spot. (Screenshot)

It’s a method that theoretically keeps the candidate clean (think outgoing Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper in the shower during an ad in his 2010 campaign).

Here’s another thing: Viewers say they hate negative advertising.

But research by folks at the Wesleyan Media Project and elsewhere indicates that despite that deep dislike, people remember the negative ads more than the positive. In other words, they can work.

What should TV viewers be aware of regarding TV ads?

Again, take a look at who paid for the ad. Was it the candidate or an outside group? The latter may have a different agenda than the former. Or it might be a somewhat hidden agenda, i.e., they may be hoping to curry favor with a future elected official or to protect their business interests by campaigning for or against a ballot initiative.

Follow the Message is tracking these ads and the money behind them. And Denver TV stations do great jobs of fact-checking these ads (with those fact-checks sometimes used in future ads!).

Do you have questions about political TV ads? Send us an email with your prompt to newsroom@coloradosun.com. Use the subject line “TV Ads.”