They will interrupt your NFL games and MLB playoffs. You’ll see them in between segments on the evening news and daytime soaps. You will not escape them by streaming your favorite shows.
Political TV ad season is here, and it’s a $45 million business in Colorado so far this year as candidates and super PACs try to reach voters en masse before the Nov. 8 election.
The Colorado Sun analyzed political TV ad contracts filed with the Federal Communications Commission to identify spending trends and outliers. TV ad contracts are often the only way to identify spending by political nonprofits, which The Sun refers to as dark-money groups because they don’t have to disclose their donors.
Nearly 40% of the general election TV ad spending that’s been spent this year is in Colorado’s new 8th Congressional District, a contest that could decide which party controls the U.S. House. Millions are also being spent in the governor’s contest.
Political advertising is important for campaigns because it allows candidates and political action committees to get their message out to large swaths of viewers. Spending on media accounts for 29% of all spending so far at the federal level in the 2022 election cycle, according to OpenSecrets, a nonpartisan research group tracking money in politics.
“Candidates need to advertise to define themselves and give viewers reasons to vote,” said Erika Franklin Fowler, a director of the Wesleyan Media Project, which researches political ads.
Rick Ridder, a Democratic political consultant in Colorado, put it this way: “The advertising purpose is two-fold: One is to convince voter A, who might be a swing voter, to vote for your candidate. ‘Your opponent is a horse thief and my candidate is the greatest stallkeeper ever known to man.’ The second piece is to engage those people who are with you to go out and vote. Give them a reason to vote.”
Traditional TV remains popular despite the advent of streaming, said Republican political consultant Tyler Sandberg.
“It’s full screen with a captive audience,” he said. “So much of the digital audience these days is watching Instagram on the toilet with the sound off.”
Here’s a look at the top 20 spenders in Colorado’s general election thus far:
8th Congressional District is biggest ad target, with outside groups on the attack
More than $13 million of the nearly $35 million in general election TV political advertising spent or booked in Colorado this year is aimed at voters in the 8th Congressional District, The Sun’s analysis shows. The new district, which runs from the northeast Denver suburbs in Adams County through Weld County into Greeley, is nearly 39% Hispanic and is considered one of the most competitive U.S House districts in the nation in 2022.
Democratic state Rep. Yadira Caraveo, of Thornton, began running TV ads last week touting her background — the child of Mexican immigrants who became a pediatrician. She’s booked nearly $2.2 million worth of advertising through Election Day.
On Thursday, state Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, Caraveo’s Republican opponent, began airing general election ads. Kirkmeyer is getting an assist in paying for the ads from the National Republican Congressional Committee after finishing the primary season with only about $65,000 in cash in her campaign’s bank account.
Kirkmeyer’s opening ad, titled “Defend Colorado’s Energy Workers,” features an oil worker criticizing “liberal Democrats” and Kirkmeyer saying “My opponent, Yadira Caraveo, she’s with them” while pointing at a photo illustration of Caraveo positioned between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, and President Joe Biden.
But most of the TV advertising spending in the 8th District is coming from two national super PACs, the Democratic House Majority PAC and the Republican Congressional Leadership Fund, which have scheduled $4.4 million and $4.2 million worth of ads through Election Day.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee began airing ads this week calling Kirkmeyer “too extreme for Colorado.” The ad criticizes Kirkmeyer for her positions on gay marriage and abortion, and calls her out for questioning the science behind climate change.
(The ad falsely states that Kirkmeyer believes abortions should be banned without exception. She says there should be an exception when the life of a mother is at risk — though she has previously supported a total ban — and she has not publicly endorsed a national abortion ban. When it comes to same-sex marriage, she wrote in a voter guide that she “agrees” that governments should define marriage as between one man and one woman.)
The Congressional Leadership Fund began airing an ad Wednesday in which the narrator calls Caraveo a “radical politician.” The ad shows a gas pump with prices beyond $5 a gallon, something that has never occurred here.
Franklin Fowler, of the Wesleyan Media Project, said outside groups typically air negative ads because they are more effective than when candidates air negative ads.
“Outside groups are more likely to serve the attack-dog function, going after their preferred candidate’s opponent,” she said. “We do have evidence that outside group negativity is more effective than candidate negativity, in part because group negativity shields the candidate from the backlash that may occur from going negative since Americans in general dislike attack ads.”
Sandberg, the GOP operative, said the ads must strike the right balance to be effective.
“Negative ads work, but it has to be compelling, it has to be memorable,” he said. “Voters are much more likely aware of what they want to vote against than what they want to vote for.”
And those outside groups are paying a premium compared to candidates, who, under federal law, are guaranteed the lowest available ad rates.
For instance, the state-level super PAC Restore the Rockies, which supports Republican candidates, spent $22,000 to air two anti-Polis ads on Colorado Springs TV news station KRDO during the Broncos Monday Night Football game. Democratic Gov. Jared Polis, by comparison, paid $8,000 to the station to air one ad during the game.
“It’s a massive cost difference,” Sandberg said. “If your outside allies want to come in, they have to spend three to four” times what candidates pay.
That’s what makes the governor’s contest an uphill battle for Republicans.
Polis spent more than $23 million of his own money in 2018, and has devoted at least $7.1 million so far in 2022. The governor’s cash will go further in the TV ad game than that of his opponents.
“This is what makes Jared Polis virtually unbeatable from a tactical level,” Sandberg said.
Governor’s contest heats up, but one competitor is notably absent
Polis’ reelection campaign started its TV blitz last week with an ad focusing on his accomplishments. He is slated to spend at least $4 million on TV ads.
Soon after, two state-level super PACs that back Republicans — Restore the Rockies and Deep Colorado Wells — began airing attack ads aimed at Polis.
“Here’s to you Jared Polis,” a vocalist sings, followed by a narrator saying, “In just a few short years, you turned Colorado into a hot mess.”
It’s unclear how much Restore the Rockies is spending thus far. Federal law doesn’t require stations to file ad contracts with state-level outside groups such as federal super PACs or issue committees.
Sandberg said the anti-Polis ad is an example of getting the negative across in a positive manner.
“You laugh at it, but it’s really effective,’’ he said. “It’s memorable.”
Democratic consultant Ridder, however, cautioned that research indicates people only recall political TV ads for about three days, even after the ad runs for 10 days straight.
“The Real Man of Genius is a nice one-spot ad that makes people laugh,” Ridder said. “Come Nov. 1, no one will remember it.”
Sandberg also praised Polis’ opening ad.
“Polis’ ad is better than the average ad,” Sandberg said. “It’s personable. It has people speaking to his qualities.”
Then there’s the ad from Deep Colorado Wells, a state-level super PAC funded by rancher Steve Wells, who made his money by leasing his land out for oil and gas drilling. Wells is spending at least $6 million to try to defeat Polis. The ad makes some of the same points as the Restore the Rockies ad, but is considerably less pointed.
Missing from the equation is Polis’ Republican opponent, University of Colorado regent Heidi Ganahl. Her campaign had only $188,000 at the end of August and has yet to buy a general election TV ad.
Do people even watch TV? What about streaming?
Even with an increasing number of people watching shows via internet streaming services, experts say TV ads are still worth it.
“TV remains an important piece of reaching audiences, especially older audiences who are likely to turn out,” Franklin Fowler said.
The TV ads are often targeting undecided voters, whose numbers have dwindled in recent years.
“Your target audience now is a lot smaller than it used to be,” Ridder said. “Forty years ago, when you looked at Colorado, you could say 15% of the voters were swing voters. Now, with hardened positions, you’re talking about 6% to 7%.”
Sandberg acknowledged that campaigns are now looking beyond TV to target audiences on digital platforms such as Facebook and Instagram, as well as streaming services including Hulu and YouTube. It’s difficult to determine how much is being spent by which advertisers on those services because federal law doesn’t require digital services to disclose ad buying.
The U.S. Senate contest is … relatively quiet
TV ad spending in Colorado’s U.S. Senate race this year has been relatively low.
In U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet’s 2016 campaign, the Democrat had booked or aired $7.8 million worth of TV ads by Sept. 13. The campaign started airing ads in April that year and ultimately spent more than $9 million on TV while defeating Republican Darryl Glenn.
This year, Bennet’s reelection campaign began airing ads in August, and he’s spent close to $3 million thus far, buying ads each week instead of placing orders for the entire election season.
Denver construction company owner Joe O’Dea, Bennet’s Republican opponent, has spent nearly $2 million and this week bought ads for late October and early November.
Outside groups have yet to engage as they did in the 2020 contest between Democratic U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper, who defeated incumbent U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican.
In the latest nonpartisan poll, from Emerson College, Jared Polis and Michael Bennet are both leading by double figures.
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