It's almost everyone's favorite time of year: when the TV commercial breaks are choked with well-scrubbed people saying that they approve various messages. For some lucky Americans — especially in Pennsylvania, Texas, and North Carolina — that happy time has already arrived.
Over the course of the year, it's expected that $2.6 billion will be spent on political ads, which is insane. I mean, good for local TV stations and for political consultants and for somewhat south of half of the candidates, but that's a lot of money. That figure comes from Larry Sabato's overview of the advertising landscape at Politico, which includes a number of the more exotic ads we've seen so far this year. $2.6 billion is 10 percent more than what was spent in the 2010 midterms, an increase that's in part due to the increase in independent political ads paid for by super PACs.
Sabato pulled data from the non-profit Sunlight Foundation to report that, of the country's 50 largest TV markets, 84 percent of them had already run some political ads over the first three months of the year. I pulled that data, too, and went a little deeper.
As the graph at right shows, most of the ads that have run this year have been either for state races or issue ads. Issue ads are spots that discuss a political issue without taking a stand for or against a candidate. They're often used by anonymously-funded 501(c)(4) organizations in order to (indirectly) attack a candidate, but are also used by organizations like the Chamber of Commerce.
The Chamber is fulfilling its pledge to invest millions in the 2014 elections, partly with the goal of ensuring that more establishment Republican candidates prevail in the party's primary races. It's already run spots in Louisville, where incumbent Sen. Mitch McConnell faces a not-very-threatening challenge from a Tea Party supporter. And it ran a number of ads in the Florida special election in March. On Tuesday, the AP reported that the Chamber was buying airtime in North Carolina, Georgia, and Alaska to bolster the establishment candidates in those states.
Compared to the investments that have already been made, the Chamber's involvement was pretty modest through the end of March. Below is a map of every metro area in the United States where political ads have already run, according to the Sunlight Foundation's crowd-sourced data. The pie charts hovering over each shows the number of ads (bigger equals more) in the TV market, and the breakdown of the type of ad. There are a lot of little tiny pie charts; click the image to get a zoomable version of it. The only pie chart you can't see is for one ad that ran in San Francisco.
There have been a lot of ads in North Carolina so far, thanks to the state's contested Senate race. You can see the effect of that Florida special election, too; Tampa was saturated in March. And Texas' primaries last month are immediately noticeable as well.
By the end of the year, this map will probably look a bit different, with large graphs floating over Arkansas and Louisiana and Alaska, and the graphs in pretty much every other market bigger and more mottled in color. That's what $2.6 billion buys you.