Dark money ads plunged when reporting requirement kicked in

By: Ashley Balcerzak

One Nation, a group run by a former top aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, spent more than $23 million running ads in competitive Senate contests through Aug. 18 of this election cycle — more than any other candidate, super PAC or other entity active in Senate races around the nation.

Lately, though, the group — a 501©(4) that doesn’t disclose its donors — seems to have shifted to a much lower gear. Since Sept. 9, One Nation has reported spending just $2 million helping its favored Republican candidates even as the competition sizzles and Nov. 8 draws very near, and much of that has gone for mailers rather than on-air ads.

But One Nation isn’t alone in its recent spending plunge. According to a new report released Tuesday by the Wesleyan Media Project with the Center for Responsive Politics, dark money groups sponsored, on average, 42.5 percent of ads by outside spending groups in competitive Senate races this cycle through Sept. 15. In the month since then, they were behind just 11 percent of those ads.

One difference? As of Sept. 9–60 days before the election — the Federal Election Commission’s reporting “window” opened, meaning spending on all ads that mention candidates has to be divulged to the agency. Before that date, only ads explicitly calling on viewers to vote for or against a candidate had to be reported.

In the face-off between incumbent Sen. Pat Toomey (R) and Democrat Katie McGinty in Pennsylvania, the percentage of outside group ads that dark money groups sponsored dropped precipitously, from 33.1 percent to 8.8 percent. In Ohio and Illinois, dark money groups stopped airing ads altogether, going from 28.1 percent and 35.7 percent respectively to zero.

Group Involvement in Competitive Senate Races over Time

“We’re seeing dark money groups that have spent millions of dollars in Senate races fade away, rather than report their spending to the FEC as they’re required to do beginning two months before the election,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. “It’s a way to get around telling the IRS next year that a great deal of their activity was political, which isn’t supposed to be the case with 501© groups.”

One Nation isn’t simply sitting on the sidelines; the group has posted issue ads to its YouTube page. But online ads fall through a regulatory loophole — like TV ads run before early September, they don’t have to be reported to the FEC.

“Social welfare” groups like One Nation are not supposed to be primarily political, which has been taken to mean they must keep their political spending to less than half of total outlays in order to keep their tax status — which is what allows them to keep their donors secret.

Overall, the share of ads sponsored by outside groups, including super PACs, in tight Senate contests has dropped too, to 35 percent last month from 44 percent before that. One reason is that candidates themselves are ramping up their own airtime.

Throughout the whole election season, super PACs have dominated group ads, with pro-Clinton Priorities USA Action topping the list. The liberal Senate Majority PAC follows, and Right to Rise, former presidential hopeful Jeb Bush‘s super PAC, still sits at number three.

Both One Nation and another nondisclosing group, the conservative U.S. Chamber of Commerce, make the top 10 list.

Top Group Advertisers in 2015–16 Election Cycle

Presidential spending: less, and nicer(!)

Despite the constant torrent of news about the presidential contest, advertising in the race is actually down from its 2012 level.

In fact, fully half as many presidential spots have aired from mid-September to mid-October compared to the same timeframe in 2012 — down to 117,000 from 256,000. And that’s true whether we look at candidate-sponsored ads or also include ads paid for by outside groups.

Over the past month Priorities USA Action still has aired more presidentially-focused ads than any other outside group, followed by the NRA Institute for Legislative Action (a 501©(4) that has logged record political spending this year), billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer’s NextGen California Action Committee and the pro-Donald Trump Rebuilding America Now PAC.

Top Group Advertisers in the Presidential Campaign

Something more than a little surprising in the data? Ads in the past month — including those aired by candidates and outside groups — have actually been more positive than in any presidential election over the same timeframe since at least 2000: 27 percent of the ads have avoided attacking the favored candidate’s rival. Hard to believe, we know. (Though it’s important to keep in mind the number of ads airing is also much lower.)

Tone of presidential race over time

As for the content of the ads: Democrats are two times more likely to include anti-Congress or anti-Washington messages than Republicans. The Clinton campaign mostly mentioned jobs and unemployment, while her allies majorly talked about immigration. On the other side, the Trump campaign hit taxes and terrorism most often, while supporting outside groups pushed gun control and the Supreme Court.

Check out the full report here. Also, see other OpenSecrets.org posts showing the dropoff in spending by politically active nonprofits as the FEC’s reporting window opens, including our report with Wesleyan Media Project in August.

Originally published at www.opensecrets.org on October 19, 2016.