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Political TV Advertising Expected To Cost $4.4 Billion In 2016


Next year's elections are expected to see record sums of money poured into TV ads. Here's one estimate - $4.4 billion. That would be up from $3 billion in 2012, the last presidential cycle. And while there are nearly two dozen presidential candidates this year, their campaigns aren't the ones fueling the spending. Most of the ads are expected to come from heavily financed super PACs. NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: It's already begun. An ad here - Rick Perry.


RICK PERRY: If you elect me your president, I will secure that border.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Paid for by Opportunity and Freedom PAC.

OVERBY: Another ad there.


BOBBY JINDAL: And they should roll up their sleeves and get to work.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Bobby Jindal for president. Believe Again is responsible for the content of this advertising.

OVERBY: And yet another one.


JOHN KASICH: And we turned Ohio around and we created jobs and cut taxes and balanced our budgets.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: John Kasich's for us.

OVERBY: None of these ads were paid for by the candidates' own campaigns. They all come from super PACs, which, officially at least, are independent operations. When it comes to TV, this distinction between the candidate's campaign and the super PAC matters a lot for two reasons. One - TV stations sell ads to candidates at a discount - the lowest price they offer anyone. And two - candidates have to raise money under contribution limits. Super PACs don't have those limits. They get to take the big money. So TV stations look at super PACs...

ELIZABETH WILNER: And figure they can charge those groups as much as they possibly dare. And usually the groups will pay those rates.

OVERBY: This is Elizabeth Wilner. She's with Kantar Media, an ad tracking firm. Wilner is the one who put the $4.4 billion price tag on 2016's political TV ads. She says all of the growth is expected to be in the presidential race mainly because there are fewer competitive elections in the House and Senate. The $4.4 billion has some wiggle room. If the Republican primary season goes long, it will delay the big-budget national campaigns. But Wilner says one thing is already clear. Super PACs, with their million-dollar donors, are driving up the cost of going on TV.

WILNER: In sort of an eBay-like situation where an ad slot will go to the highest bidder. And that bid could be, you know, during a professional football game. It could be tens of thousands of dollars if it's close to Election Day.

OVERBY: That affects candidates, too, by pulling up even the discounted prices they get. So take Florida, where the Republican presidential primary in March is expected to be a giant spend-a-thon between home state Republicans Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. After all those candidates and the super PACs, there won't be much air time, let alone affordable airtime, for anyone else. Alex Patton is a Republican consultant in Florida. He works mainly with candidates for Congress and state offices.

ALEX PATTON: Well, I mean, how you're going to have to deal with it is if you are a serious candidate to run for Congress, it's almost a requirement to have a super PAC now.

OVERBY: He says one thing that's not in question is where all these new super PACs will find money.

PATTON: You know, every time I think that the donor class is going to say enough, I'm always surprised.

OVERBY: But with this cycle, the third presidential race fueled partly by super PACs, the surprise may start to wear off. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.
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