Astroturfing The Airwaves: 7 Weeks, $26 Million, And 33,000 Right-Wing TV Ads

September 23, 2010 3:10 pm ET — Alan Pyke

In the wake of the Citizens United and rulings, it's become cliché to liken the campaign finance world to the Wild West. But that's a fairly apt comparison. Our elections are wide open to influence from wealthy corporations and well-heeled individuals, who can now give as much as they want to groups formed to attack political opponents through ads and paid get-out-the-vote efforts. Some of these groups, including American Crossroads GPS (Karl Rove's "shadow RNC") and Americans for Prosperity (Daddy Warbucks to the Tea Party movement) have no obligation to tell us who's paying for their staff, ads and airtime. The only way to hold any of these groups accountable is through relentless fact checking (which can lead to pressure on news stations to pull false ads off the air, as with these 60 Plus Association ads). 

The real problem with the Wild West analogy is that it implies things were well-ordered prior to Citizens United — that the process of hiring and firing our federal government every couple years was under the protection of some Wyatt Earp type who'd make the super-rich turn in their guns at the edge of town. That's an exaggeration, as clever people could often find ways around the rules in the past.

Today, though, they don't have to work around the rules; the really troublesome ones are gone. The court decisions, regardless of their legal merits, removed the speed bumps from our election financing rules in the name of free speech.

But political speech isn't free. TV and radio ads aren't cheap. Even the practice of using volunteers to knock doors and phone voters is decaying; American Crossroads has earmarked $10 million of its promised $50 million bankroll for Republican "GOTV" efforts around the country. Money buys influence, which buys power, and thus it ever shall be. The figures back that up.

Since August 1, just nine right-wing "super PAC" groups have spent roughly $26.2 million on television ads, according to FEC filings. From August 1 to September 22 — less than two months — those nine groups ran an estimated 33,485 ads, more than half of which came from American Crossroads and Americans for Prosperity (click to enlarge):

Click to enlarge