NEW YORK (Reuters) - Super PACs, political groups that can raise unlimited funds to advocate for candidates as long as they do not coordinate with them, have spent record amounts on advertising this campaign season but are not getting much bang for their buck.
Super PACs associated with 2016 Republican U.S. presidential hopefuls Jeb Bush and Chris Christie have led the way in spending thus far, but the TV, radio and Internet ads they have purchased have failed to lift either candidate in opinion polls.
“You may have a rich Super PAC, but that’s not going to save you at the end of the day, at least at this point,” said Travis Ridout, a Washington State University professor and the co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks political advertising.
So far this year, Super PACs have shelled out $76 million on ads for candidates, compared with just about $5 million over the same period in the last U.S. presidential election cycle, according to a Reuters analysis of federal campaign finance data.
The record spending reflects a sharp rise in advertising in this presidential race, but is also indicative of the hefty prices Super PACs are being forced to pay for television and radio spots. In some instances, they are paying 10 times more than the candidates’ campaigns pay.
Right to Rise, which supports former Florida governor Bush, has spent $42 million on advertising but a slumping Bush remains far behind the leaders in the race for the Republican nomination in the November 2016 election. Bush had the support of just 9 percent of Republican voters in the latest Reuters/Ipsos poll, essentially unchanged since the beginning of November.
The Super PAC supporting Christie’s bid, America Leads, has spent about $9 million on advertising but the New Jersey governor was under 4 percent, exactly where he was in early November.
Entering this campaign season, political experts expected big-money spending by Super PACs to help shape the campaign. Super PACs, which have the ability to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money, offer the wealthiest donors a powerful vehicle to support causes and candidates. But their clout remains uncertain in this campaign cycle.
Two high-profile Republicans dropped out of the race due to a lack of voter support despite being backed by big-money Super PACs.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker had a Super PAC with money in the bank, but after spending $6 million in three months his campaign’s coffers were bare and he exited the race in September. Perry, the former Texas governor who quit the same month, hemorrhaged money and ended the third quarter with just $45,000 on hand. His Super PAC returned $13 million to its donors.
Advertising rates for the official presidential campaign organizations of candidates such as Democrat Hillary Clinton or Republican Ted Cruz are capped under campaign finance laws. No such ceiling exists for what media companies can charge Super PACs.
Couple that with stiff competition for advertising time among Super PACs in a crowded presidential field, and the result is a tight and expensive advertising market.
“Super PACs are coming in and paying enormous amounts of money for the exact same thing,” said Art Hackney, a political consultant in Alaska who is helping raise money for Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s bid for the Republican presidential nomination.
For instance, this fall in New Hampshire, whose primary election is an important early test in the race for the two parties’ nominations, Bush spent $41,140 to run 30-second ads 44 times over a nine-day period.
The ads appeared on heavily watched shows like prime time college football on ABC, “Good Morning America” and “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” Federal Communications Commission filings show.
By contrast, Right to Rise spent $139,485 for just 31 spots on some of the same shows over an eight-day period.
The steep rates have not dissuaded the Super PACs from spending, however. There have been about 45 percent more Republican primary ads aired on broadcast and national TV through early December this year than during the same period in 2011, ahead of the previous presidential election, according to a Wesleyan Media Project analysis of Kantar Media/CMAG advertising data.
Media buyers said the majority of those ads are coming from Super Pacs rather than campaigns, pitting them in bidding wars against one another. In the Republican presidential field, more than a dozen candidates are still competing, and all but one, billionaire businessman Donald Trump, are supported by Super PACs.
Kegan Beran, a media buyer for New Day for America, a Super PAC supporting Ohio Governor John Kasich’s presidential bid, estimated that 85 percent of political ad buys so far have been made by Super PACs.
Editing by Will Dunham