Within the file cabinets of hundreds of television stations around the country are public files concerning political campaigns which often go completely unreported.
Candidates and organizations are required by law to file public disclosure reports on how much they spend on political advertising. The actual contracts and files containing the specifics of how much each ad buy costs and which programs contained the ads are available to anyone off the street, but they must walk into a broadcast station to view them, usually under supervision depending on the station's protocol.
KCCI and WHO-TV in Des Moines, Iowa both allowed instant access. WHO, an NBC affiliate, kept their files in a conference room off to the side of the front lobby, while KCCI, the CBS affiliate, kept theirs upstairs in their advertising department. Both allowed for taking photos of the files in lieu of actual photocopies, but did make photocopies upon request for 50 cents per page.
WOI-TV in West Des Moines, Iowa made it more difficult, as there is no regular front door or lobby. WOI, the ABC affiliate, is consistently the lowest rated news operation in the central Iowa market. After being led to their advertising department, they warily checked with higher-ups before giving an OK to taking photos of the files, which were nearly all printed on scratch paper.
KCCI provided a great deal more information in their political file; not only the listing of programs in which the ad was aired, but details on what the spot was about, who purchased it, some contained email exchanges and photocopies of the checks received.
Some files, like the Progressive Change Campaign Committee or the National Organization for Marriage, included a reference page to put clarify why the content of the ad was used.
WHO had simpler files, with only the listing of when the ad aired in most.
During the final weeks of the elections, voters around the country were bombarded with political advertising on television, said to cost a total around $4 billion. Although local television news programs discussed the massive advertising, it was not reported the actual selection of time slots for the ad buys focused not only on news programs, but also on shows with women and senior citizens as their typical audience.
According to the advertising records of KCCI, WHO-TV and WOI in Des Moines, Iowa, national organizations like the American Future Fund, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, National Organization for Marriage and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce were major spenders in TV advertising in the final weeks of the campaign season.
Political ads filled entire commercial breaks during news programs in October, but many candidates and organizations purchased many ads during the afternoon game shows and talk shows like "Dr. Phil," "Oprah," and "Ellen," which typically attract both women and older persons.
Independent Organizations Play A Big Role
The conservative Des Moines-based American Future Fund spent millions against Democratic candidates, including Rep. Bruce Braley of eastern Iowa. In an ad titled "Mosque," Braley was attacked for supporting the right of an Islamic cultural center to be located in Manhattan near ground zero, putting forward the idea of "victory mosques." The producer behind the ad, Larry McCarthy, is the same man behind the infamous racially tinged "Willie Horton" commercial against Democrat Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential campaign.
The AFF, while technically based in Des Moines, has no official headquarters other than a P.O. box. Its members include people from Mitt Romney's 2008 presidential campaign, including Tim Albrecht, who is now the Branstad/Reynolds communications director. Terry Branstad served as chairman of AFF's Lecture Series prior to his gubernatorial campaign.
Several campaign watchdog groups filed formal complaints against AFF for claims it inappropriately filed as a tax-exempt advocacy group.
AFF spent between $4,000 and $8,000 on ads targeting Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller during high-rated news programs over "Obamacare," since he declined to join a multistate lawsuit against the federal law. AFF spent $31,000 on 37 spots for one ad in October on WHO.
Countering that effort, the Committee for Justice and Fairness spent up to $40,000 in a week on one anti-Brenna Findley ad. The Committee is another of the larger spenders. Findley is the former chief of staff for Steve King, Republican nominee for attorney general and wants to join the health care reform lawsuit.
The Committee bought 84 spots from WHO between Oct. 22 and Nov. 2, mostly during news programs and the "Today Show," but also during NFL games and NBC staples like "Ellen" and "Saturday Night Live." A buy during "Ellen" cost $750 per 30 seconds, while a spot for SNL would cost between $1,050 and $3,300, depending on whether it was a new episode. In total, they spent $69,970 during that time period.
Another conservative group, the National Organization for Marriage, spent $19,000 with KCCI in the final two weeks on an ad against the retention of three Iowa Supreme Court justices, mainly during news shows but also six spots during the "Late Show with David Letterman" and four during "The Oprah Winfrey Show." NOM spent $42,000 in September, targeting "Oprah," news and prime-time television, which can carry a price tag of $3,000 for 30 seconds.
In total, NOM has spent nearly half a million dollars on anti-retention ads in addition to sponsoring a statewide bus tour.
Citizens United even put in thousands toward robocalls against judicial retention.
On WOI, NOM bought 33 spots for $10,000. NOM began airing commercials against the Varnum v. Brien ruling in the summer of 2009, casting the legalization of gay marriage as something threatening to businesses and doctors, and described parents who can't stop schools from teaching children being gay is OK. It was all cited extensively in a letter from an attorney representing the group.
One Iowa purchased ads to defend against NOM's commercials in 2009 and early 2010, but did not put any money toward protecting the justices in the fall of 2010. Ultimately the three judges were voted out of office.
The Republican-friendly U.S. Chamber of Commerce, whose donors are not made public, put $27,000 into an ad in early October on WHO. It also spent $51,000 on 62 spots of another ad that ran during NFL Sunday games -- it cost $3,000 for one spot.
The U.S. Chamber was one of the few spending on ads during soaps, totaling 41 spots for one ad in a month from Sept. 27 to Oct. 26, which equals $78,000. It spent $31,000 on 31 spots for another ad, and $31,000 on 29 spots for another ad attacking Rep. Leonard Boswell of Iowa's 3rd District.
In mid-October, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Democracy For America launched an ad attacking Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) for various comments he made in recent years, and also to advocate voting for his Democratic challenger Roxanne Conlin. They focused on getting this ad aired around programs more women are likely to watch because a couple of the quotes in the commercial included Grassley talking about "living off the public tit." ran an attack ad
Initially, they sent an email blast to garner donations to run the ad after only airing it on one morning during KCCI's morning news program. Within hours, they had collected tens of thousands of dollars.
But the Grassley campaign labeled it as nothing more than a fundraising tactic, and WHO-TV refused to air the ad, saying the quotes were taken out of context. Upon inspecting KCCI's political file, however, the groups had provided citations for each quote along with the contracts for purchase.
A Wesleyan Media Project study concluded 2010 actually was the most negative campaign season in recent election cycles.
The study found many commercials aired by candidates are more likely to be positive, while those supported by independent committees typically make attacks on a candidate. In addition, they concluded Republicans were more likely to attack in the final weeks of campaigning.
The DCCC was one of the biggest spenders in local TV ads, many of them attacking Republican candidates like Brad Zaun, who unsuccessfully challenged Rep. Leonard Boswell, Democrat, in Iowa's third district.
The DCCC spent $19,000 on 40 spots for one ad on WHO-TV in the last five weeks of the campaign, and $39,000 on 45 spots for another ad on WHO-TV, including during an NFL pregame show, many during the "Today Show" and "The Rachael Ray Show" and within WHO News at noon. The group spent a lot in the final month on KCCI -- around $66,000 on one ad in some weeks, targeted to news programs, the "Dr. Phil Show," "Oprah" and "The Price Is Right."
Many of the local candidates who ran for the state legislature in Iowa attacked Democrats who supported federal health care reform, despite the fact they did not vote on it and was not something that would be an issue within their role in state government.
Despite the large amounts of money spent on television, the gubernatorial race in Iowa brought out the largest amounts of advertising. Branstad's campaign widely outspent any other committee or candidate, and nearly doubled Democrat Gov. Chet Culver's ad buys.
In fact, in the waning days of the campaign, Branstad came very close to purchasing ad time for every single block available at KCCI. (See PDF) Through all news programs, soap operas, Oprah, prime time lineups and through the late night shows, until 1 a.m. Central Standard Time, he purchased 112 spots costing $69,865 in the last week of October.
Like previously mentioned, anyone can check the political file if they are interested and can do so without warning. However, according to each station's guest check-in log, many times the files are only reviewed by campaigns to keep track of where their opponents are placing ads. So when the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee places an ad attacking Republican Congressional candidate Brad Zaun during the 6 p.m. news, Zaun's campaign would likely buy a spot in the same block to counter.
However, in the waning days ahead of the elections campaigns began to ask simply for any available slots, as ad time became scarce.