Political Ads About the Environment Are Exploding. But Not Really

This election is supposed to be all about energy. Billionaire oilmen are spilling their wallets, and environmental groups are spending record amounts. The New York Times joined others last week with a story declaring “an explosion of energy and environmental ads.”

If that’s the narrative you’re looking for, there’s plenty of evidence. There are climate and environment ads like this, this and this, and pro-coal ads from both parties like this and this. So far, there have been 125,000 Senate TV ads mentioning energy and the environment, according to Kantar Media/CMAG, which tracks campaign ads. That’s the highest level in at least the last four election cycles.

But what’s also true is that the number of ads has ballooned across most issues, not just energy and the environment. Campaigns have been flooded with new sources of cash beginning in 2010, after the Supreme Court jettisoned campaign-finance limits in its landmark Citizens United decision. As a percentage of the TV-ad universe, energy and environment ads are barely keeping up.

In fact, compared with 2008 -- when the anti-regulation “Drill, baby, drill” mantra barely lost out to “Yes we can” -- the proportion of congressional TV ads addressing energy and environment has actually fallen. In 2008, 1 in 3 congressional ads mentioned energy or the environment; in 2014, it’s 1 in 5.

Source: Kantar Media/CMAG via Bloomberg

What’s remarkable about this midterm election cycle is the amount of money at play, and the sheer number of ads it’s buying. Congressional TV spots have doubled since 2008, to 820,000 and counting.

Here’s a breakdown that shows ad spots specifically for Senate races, which is where most of the political action is in 2014:

Source: Kantar Media/CMAG via Bloomberg

Even if the proportion of environment ads are down from 2008, there is something qualitatively different happening this year. Democrats are taking a tougher stand on energy and climate issues than in the past.

Take this “cavemen” ad paid for by billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer, which likens Florida Gov. Rick Scott to a Neanderthal for ducking questions about climate change. Or this ad that mocks Republican Senate candidate Scott Brown for ties to billionaire energy executives Charles and David Koch. The tenor of the pro-environment ads is new to swing-state politics and lays groundwork for bigger battles in the 2016 presidential election.

While it’s hard to touch the roughly $300 million that the Koch brothers are expected to spend on the Nov. 4 election, Steyer and his super political action committee (or Super PAC), NextGen Climate, have marked a turning point for Democrats, said Elizabeth Wilner, the senior vice president for politics at Kantar Media/CMAG. Steyer has spent some $58 million, with the sole purpose of raising climate issues in mainstream elections.

“This cycle we see far fewer ads bashing Wall Street and far more bashing oil billionaires,” Wilner said by phone yesterday. “Democrats are playing ball, and they didn’t in 2010.”

More from Tom Randall:

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