President Barack Obama’s health-care law is fueling an explosion in early television advertising before November’s congressional elections, with close to half the commercials attacking the measure.
More than 66,000 ads in U.S. House and Senate races aired through March 9, more than triple what candidates and allied groups aired during a comparable period four years ago, according to New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks advertising.
Most of the ads spotlight health care, underscoring how the Affordable Care Act -- Obama’s signature domestic achievement -- may become a defining issue determining whether Republicans maintain control of the House and Democrats keep their Senate majority for the last two years of his presidency.
More than 30,000 of the ads had an anti-Obamacare message, a 12-fold increase from four years ago, according to data compiled by CMAG. The anti-Obamacare spots accounted for 45 percent of all ads, up from 12 percent during the comparable period leading up to the 2010 midterm elections.
The findings also show the growing power of outside groups in attempting to influence elections. Organizations unaffiliated with any candidate account for 72 percent of ads for the 2014 campaign, compared with 13 percent in 2010, before changes to federal campaign-finance laws and regulations spurred the creation of some groups while increasing the clout of others.
“There’s now so much money out there for advertising, so many advertisers who are in the game, that you can keep airing ads a couple of days at a time” and “stretch it out all the way from now through November,” Elizabeth Wilner, a senior vice president at Kantar Media, said in an interview.
The focus on health care comes as the Obama administration struggles to limit political damage from the botched rollout of the website for insurance exchanges designed to offer coverage to millions of Americans lacking it, where uninsured people have until March 31 to sign up for medical care.
Fifty-one percent of Americans favor retaining the Affordable Care Act with “small modifications,” while 13 percent would leave the law intact and 34 percent would repeal it, according to a Bloomberg National Poll taken March 7-10.
The law is more of a political motivation for those who oppose it than others, according to the survey. Seventy-three percent of respondents who would repeal the law said it will be a “major” factor influencing their vote in November, compared with 45 percent of those who support modifications and 33 percent who support the law as is.
The CMAG data cover ads for House and Senate races during a 14-month period ending March 9 in the 2010 and 2014 campaigns and exclude activity in special elections. The health-care legislation, after about a year of debate, cleared Congress on March 21, 2010.
Dominating this year’s early blitz is Americans for Prosperity, a 501(c)(4) group funded by billionaire energy executives Charles and David Koch that promotes limited government and bills itself as the “nation’s largest advocate for health-care freedom.”
Americans for Prosperity’s ads have run more than 17,000 times for the 2014 election, most linking politically vulnerable Democrats to Obamacare. The group yesterday released its second health-care ad attacking Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas, who’s in a difficult re-election race in a state Obama lost by more than 20 percentage points in 2012.
“We knew there would be heightened public awareness around the implementation of the law, and we thought it was important to go up early with a heavy effort,” Americans for Prosperity president Tim Phillips said in an interview.
“So it’s been television, radio, social media, and a very strong grassroots effort” that have been “harming these incumbent Democrats” who voted for the law, Phillips said.
Many of its ads seek to personalize the issue for voters by highlighting individuals who say Obamacare made their medical care more expensive. The administration’s allies and fact-checking groups have challenged those claims.
The ramped-up activity by Americans for Prosperity, which had run no ads by a similar point in 2010, has compelled political opponents to follow suit in an arms race on the airwaves.
Senate Majority PAC, a super-political action committee defending Senate Democrats, ran ads more than 5,200 times early in the 2014 campaign, second-most of any group or candidate. Still, this was less than one-third of Americans for Prosperity’s output.
“The amount of spending that they have unleashed on these Senate races is unprecedented, both in scope and in timing,” Ty Matsdorf, a spokesman for Senate Majority PAC, said of Americans for Prosperity in an interview. The PAC is funded partly by Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor who is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
Senate Majority PAC’s ads have linked Republican candidates to the Koch brothers, describing them as “out-of-state billionaires playing politics with health care” in a commercial defending Democratic Representative Bruce Braley, who’s seeking an open Senate seat in Iowa.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce also is airing ads earlier than in previous midterm elections. Its efforts target the health-care law and also aim to aid some Republican allies facing party primary challengers aligned with the small-government Tea Party movement.
The nation’s biggest business federation is working to re-elect Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who faces a Tea Party-backed challenger in a May 20 primary and a potentially strong Democratic candidate in the Nov. 4 general election. McConnell would be in line to lead the Senate in 2015 if he wins re-election and Republicans achieve the net gain of six seats they need for a chamber majority.
“The stakes of this election are high,” Blair Latoff Holmes, the Chamber’s executive director of media relations, said in an e-mail. The Chamber is “supporting free enterprise candidates very aggressively and early.”
Early ads can shape public perception of candidates months before a saturation of ads shortly before the general election overwhelm weary voters.
“Early advertising can have potentially a larger effect than later advertising,” said Michael Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute, a Washington-based nonprofit that analyzes political fundraising. “That lesson is one everybody took from” the 2004 presidential election.
The Swift Boat Veterans For Truth group ran ads in August questioning the Vietnam war record of that year’s Democratic presidential candidate, then-Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. The ads generated controversy and media attention, while defining Kerry, now U.S. secretary of state, in an unfavorable light before the campaign’s homestretch.
The early spending comes amid a campaign-finance landscape much different than four years ago. The most active groups on the air now hadn’t been on television at a comparable point four years ago -- or they didn’t exist then.
In early-to-mid 2010, a series of court rulings and regulatory decisions loosening restrictions on independent political spending helped spawn super-PACs, which can raise money in unlimited amounts to directly advocate for the election or defeat of candidates. Super-PACs matured during the 2012 election, including in the White House contest between Obama and Republican Mitt Romney.
Dozens of super-PACs have emerged this year to aid or target individual House and Senate candidates on television.
Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, a super-PAC backing McConnell, has run more TV ads this election than the senator’s own campaign, CMAG data show.
The Internal Revenue Service is considering rules that would broaden the definition of political activity by 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations, which have also refined how they influence elections.
“The role of groups has evolved since 2010, and they’ve become much more sophisticated about when they advertise, how they advertise in relation to other groups, and what their motives are in terms of advertising early,” Wilner said.