Last-Minute TV Buys Cost Political Groups an Extra $69 Million

GOP Wasted More on Costly Ads Resulting from High Demand than Democrats Did

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On Saturday, a Republican group aiming to help elect Black conservatives ran a TV spot during the Georgia Bulldogs game on Atlanta's CBS station WGCL. The Bulldogs lost to the Florida Gators in the annual grudge match, but political TV spending data shows they weren't the only losers that day. Free at Last PAC, the Black Republican group, plunked down $150,000 for that one-minute ad opposing Democratic Senate hopeful Michelle Nunn. Buys like that one contributed to a $21.7 million loss for GOP party organizations and outside groups that bought TV late in the midterm race for the Senate.

The data comes from TV data and analytics firm Echelon Insights, which reported political advertisers spent a total of $69 million more on last-minute TV buying this midterm election cycle than they would have had they reserved ad space before October. The firm measured TV spending by political campaigns and advocacy groups on ads scheduled for October or early November through election day, today.

Free at Last PAC "are sort of getting played" by dropping $150,000 on a single spot, argued Patrick Ruffini, co-founder of Echelon. "It's not about necessarily reaching the most people; it's about making a name for yourself, saying you bought a very splashy campaign spot," he said, suggesting outside groups sometimes use strategic buys in the hopes of generating earned media by news outlets. According to Federal Election Commission data, the Free at Last PAC media placement was made through Lagniappe Communications Group.

Democrats have been less wasteful according to the Echelon analysis, which shows groups on the left overspent on Senate-related TV ads by $6.1 million. The company said GOP Senate candidates spent $2.4 million too much in October, while Democratic Senate candidates were inefficient with $3.1 million worth of their buys.

"This certainly makes a good argument for more targeted forms of advertising," said Mr. Ruffini.

Buying TV spots late in the election cycle is more expensive because inventory is at a premium and prices go up as demand rises. Echelon studied all broadcast TV ad contracts for spots set to run from Oct. 1 through Nov. 4. To determine the amount of money advertisers could have saved had they bought early, Echelon applied generally-lower pre-October ad rates to the late orders.

The company said the average cost for a TV ad purchased by outside Republican groups rose 77% after Oct. 1, and Republicans have spent $176 million since July on TV ads "in competitive (or formerly competitive) Senate races," compared to $159 million spent in that time by Democratic advertisers.

As much as the parties might like some political version of the upfront market -- when ad time is bought and sold in advance -- the scatter market is likely to remain the reality.

Political advertisers sometimes have no choice but to buy up inventory at the last minute when there's a late influx of fundraising dollars to spend.

"A lot of these things aren't necessarily controllable by campaigns," said Mr. Ruffini, regarding late donations. Indeed, because money often flows to outside groups as supporters hit candidate campaign donation limits, it's the PACs and independent expenditure groups that are bound to continue driving up TV costs, he said. "The super PACs certainly are going to exacerbate this."

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