06/01/2012 01:44 pm ET Updated Jun 01, 2012

Facing Super PAC Onslaught, Democrats Take Solace In 1970s Campaign Law

WASHINGTON -- As he assesses the electoral landscape, in which Democratic candidates will be pummeled with hundreds of millions of dollars in attack ads from super PACs, Guy Cecil, the man in charge of maintaining a Democratic majority in the Senate, takes solace in a 1970s-era elections law.

Since the passage of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, candidates for office have been allowed to pay the lowest unit rate available for television and radio airtime in the 60 days prior to a general election. The discount doesn't apply to outside groups.

During a normal cycle, this provides only a marginal advantage to any particular campaign. But now that political advertisements are increasingly being outsourced to outside groups with the advent of super PACs, the law could prove far more significant. Eddie Vale, a spokesman for the AFL-CIO's super PAC Workers' Voice, said it played a role, albeit a small one, in convincing his group to devote money to on-the-ground operations rather than television ad campaigns. And for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, there has been a change in strategic mindset.

"We have spent more time here trying to figure out, how do we help them raise more money," said Cecil, the DSCC's Executive Director, in an interview. "This is sort of against conventional wisdom, but the reason it is important for our candidates to have big cash-on-hand advantages is because their dollar is worth more than a super PAC dollar."

Cecil cited a closely watched U.S. Senate race in Florida, between incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson (D) and likely challenger Rep. Connie Mack (R), as a good example.

"When you see the coverage of how much money is being spent by Obama or this and that, it is being covered as dollars because that is the easiest denominator for people to understand. But the fact that Bill Nelson has $9.5 million on hand and Connie Mack has only $1.5 million and has a primary is a huge advantage for us and to close that gap. Super PACs have to spend even more."

All of this is irrelevant if both candidates in a race have roughly the same amount of cash to spend on television advertisements. But in many high-profile races, including potentially the presidential contest, the Republican candidate faces a deficit and is turning to outside groups like the Chamber of Commerce and Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS to help pick up the slack.

Matt Canter, a spokesman for the DSCC, said that Democratic candidates for Senate enjoyed cash-on-hand advantages in Florida, Missouri, Wisconsin, Montana, Virginia, and Ohio. Elizabeth Warren has raised more than Sen. Scott Brown (R) in Massachusetts as well, but the situation in that race is more complex because the two have signed a pledge to limit the influence of third party groups.

The advantages that can be generated from these cash-on-hand disparities will change as the ad market evolves. But Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters, said that granting political candidates the lowest unit rates can translate "into about a 30 percent discount" from what is charged to commercial clients.

"Candidates ... in general will pay significantly less than groups that aren't guaranteed anything," added Ken Goldstein, president of the Campaign Media Analysis Group. "Sometimes groups will pay a little bit more and sometimes they will pay a lot more."

On Wednesday, Politico reported that Republican-backing super PACs were planning to spend a total of $1 billion on the 2012 elections. Not all of it will pay for TV ads; a good chunk will go to ballot drives and mail and phone operations. But even if $500 million were to be spent on airtime, and $200 million of that were saved for the final 60 days of the election, Democratic candidates would only need to spend about $140 million to air an equal amount of ads. The $60 million difference could be spent elsewhere.

Complicating matters even further is the fact that television markets have unique features and political operatives unique priorities. Conservative outside groups, for example, may feel inclined to pour $50 million into ad buys in Ohio, while Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) could spend $10 million on ads in his re-election contest. The actual amount spent would be vastly different, but since ads in Montana are cheaper than they are in Ohio, the amount of airtime purchased wouldn't necessarily be far apart.

"People reporting dollar figures drives me nuts," Goldstein said of reporters' tendency to report ad buys simply by the sum total being spent. "You really can't add dollars across media markets. It's not apples to apples. A dollar in one market is different than another."

As it currently stands, so much money is likely to be raised during the 2012 campaign cycle that super PACs will be able to cover television ads and other expenditures without feeling the pinch. Already, campaigns and outside groups are making buys for the election season's closing weeks in hopes of locking some airtime into place.

But as Wharton notes, "broadcasters will do their darndest to work with candidates to accommodate their requests for ad time" during the election's critical final moments, to prevent the candidates from being drowned out. Politicians, he said, are "the last people on the planet that you want to make angry."