Astroturfing The Airwaves: 81,000 Right-Wing TV Ads Since August 1

October 18, 2010 1:48 pm ET — Alan Pyke

Ten right-wing groups organized outside the official GOP have now aired 81,295 TV ads since August began, according to ad data reviewed by Political Correction. That's a 20,000 ad jump from last week's update, a massive increase fueled in large part by the American Action Network's $10.5 million in ad spending last week. The ad data suggests that the real total, including smaller groups with murkier histories, may have already eclipsed 100,000 spots. With two weeks of airtime still to go, the 10 groups tracked in our chart alone have aired 81,295 TV ads since August 1 (click to enlarge):

We have dropped the Tea Party Express from our graphic because the group hasn't haunted the airwaves since the primary season wrapped up. Stepping into the breach is the soda-funded Americans Against Food Taxes, who have aired 4,406 ads of their own in this period.

By now you may have noticed that our chart shows a per-spot cost of nearly $1,000. The actual per-unit cost is probably even higher. The reason? A substantial portion of the money these ten groups have spent is not being reported. Not to the FEC. Not to the candidates impacted by the ads (any such coordination would be illegal). Certainly not to American voters at large.

That lack of disclosure is one of the reasons the oft-recycled "Wild West" analogy for the post-Citizens United world is so misleading; with regard to disclosure, it's pretty much always been this way. Anyone determined to get around disclosure rules could do so before Citizens. That decision determined corporations are entitled to the same free speech rights as individuals, and a lower court ruling months later struck down contribution limits. The same types of tax-exempt groups (501c4s like Media Matters Action Network, except the groups we're talking about here prefer to convince people with repetition rather than fact) can run political ads without ever telling their audience who's picking up the tab. What did change is where they go for money, and how much they ask for: Uncle Moneybags in a corporate boardroom can give until it hurts, and then give some more, with complete confidence that no one will ever tattle. (Some groups do still report donors periodically; and the Center for Responsive Politics have good resources for figuring out who's playing by what rules.)

Of the 10 groups tracked in the above chart, three stand out as combining completely anonymous funding with an incredible volume of TV advertising. Americans for Prosperity, the Chamber of Commerce and Crossroads GPS (the non-disclosure arm of the "shadow RNC") together account for half of the ads in the above graphic (click to enlarge):

Again, none of these three groups will ever tell us where they get their money. Representatives for a couple of 501(c) right-wing ad machines have now made paranoid statements about their fear of retribution when asked to volunteer donors. They won't report their financing, but GOP operative Scott Reed gave us all a window into the right-wing funding surge when he told Public Citizen what types of businesses are feeding his Commission for Hope, Growth and Opportunity (CHGO):

Where's the dough coming from? "The big three stepping into the batter's box are the financial services industry, the energy industry, and the health insurance industry," Reed said.

So let's take a look at what Wall Street and company are buying (click to enlarge):

These groups are particularly determined to prevent you from knowing who gives them money. Of the 10 shown above, only the NRA and the Club for Growth make donor disclosures for their PAC activity. It's also worth noting that the Committee for Truth in Politics sued the FEC to prevent disclosure of its spending in 2008, when it accused then-Senator Obama of voting to free sex offenders early.

Smell that? It's your informed democracy burning down around you.