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Spending on TV political ads nears all-time high

Political spending on television ads has eclipsed the record amount spent by candidates, political parties and independent groups in the 2000 presidential election year and could hit $1 billion by Election Day.

Propelling the trend are a cliffhanger battle for control of Congress, free-spending gubernatorial races in states with expensive media markets and a rush by the Democratic and Republican parties to use all of their unlimited "soft money," which will be banned after the Nov. 5 election.

Spending on political TV advertising already has topped $678 million, more than the $672 million spent in 2000, which featured one of the closest races for president in history. The last three weeks are traditionally the heaviest-spending part of the season, says Evan Tracy of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks advertising costs.

"Most industry analysts are saying around $1 billion will be spent, and we have no reason to believe that it's going to be anything less than that," Tracy says.

The heavy spending defies the conventional wisdom that election years without a race for the White House are less expensive. It also appears to belie the stated intentions of campaigns, parties and interest groups to shift their emphasis to more personal get-out-the-vote efforts.

Among the reasons for the advertising blitz:

  • Many of the nation's 36 races for governor are hotly contested. New York, Texas and California are likely to see $100 million spent.
  • Although there are only a few dozen contested congressional races, the battle for control of Congress is bringing out a frenzy of spending by political parties and outside interest groups, such as big business and organized labor. The AARP today will announce its first-ever national TV advertising buy of about $4 million in hopes of encouraging older Americans to vote.

Democrats have a 50-49 Senate majority; Republicans have a 223-208 edge in the House of Representatives.

  • The national Democratic and Republican parties are pouring money into close House and Senate contests in the form of "issue ads." That allows them to boost their candidates or attack opponents using unlimited "soft money" given by corporations, unions or wealthy donors, often in six-figure amounts. A campaign-finance law that takes effect Nov. 6 will ban such contributions, meaning parties must spend every dollar by that deadline.

Demand for advertising time is driving up prices in media markets where the saturation is heaviest, in some cases crowding out non-political advertisers.

"This is the best year from a political standpoint the TV market has ever seen," says Mark Antonelli, general manager of KELO in Sioux Falls, S.D., a state with three competitive races.


Jim Drinkard, USA TODAY. October 16, 2002

Copyright © 2002 USA TODAY. All rights reserved.