Court TV 2009-10

Spending on Television Advertising in 2009 and 2010 Judicial Elections

The 2009–10 election cycle represented the costliest non-presidential election cycle for TV spending in state supreme court elections. Candidates, parties and special-interest groups spent a total of $16.8 million, just slightly more than the $16.6 million spent on Supreme Court TV advertising 2005–06.11 And for the first time since the “New Politics of Judicial Elections” series began in 2000, attack ads targeted high-court incumbents in retention elections.

TV advertising in 2009–10 also showed a heavy reliance on independent ads by non-candidate groups. Only one of the five most expensive ad campaigns was sponsored by a candidate on the ballot. The other four came from party organizations or special-interest groups. In 2010, non-candidate groups accounted for nearly 50 percent of all high-court election ads.

As in prior years, non-candidate groups played the attack-dog role, sponsoring a disproportionate number of negative ads while candidates continued to run predominantly positive, traditionally themed advertisements. Though many of the non-candidate ads were funded by “tort reform” groups concerned with civil justice issues, the vast majority of these ads focused on criminal justice themes, often involving misleading claims that judicial candidates were soft on crime.

Number of Television Ad Airings by Biennium, 2001-2010

2-1 Number of Television Ad Airings, Bienium

Data courtesy TNS Media Intelligence/CMAG.

In addition to the overall high levels of spending on TV advertising, the number of advertisements aired continued to rise: 46,659 total television spots ran in 2009-10, compared with 35,720 in the previous non-presidential cycle.

While the $16.8 million spent on TV in 2009-10 makes it the most expensive non-presidential election cycle for election ads, the highest two-year total remains 2007-08, when candidates, political parties and outside special-interest groups combined to spend $26.6 million on nearly 60,000 television spots in state supreme court races.

Overall, as in previous cycles, partisan races drew the most cash. In 2010, $9,134,460 was spent on TV advertising in partisan Supreme Court elections nationally, compared with $3,039,480 in nonpartisan elections. And in 2009, $3.35 million was spent on TV in Pennsylvania’s partisan election, compared with $1.32 million spent in Wisconsin’s non-partisan contest. That said, 2010 saw a previously unheard-of explosion of special-interest spending in nonpartisan retention elections, and this trend is likely to continue.12

TV Advertising in the 2009-10 Supreme Court Elections: A Detailed Analysis

Judicial candidates, political parties, and outside special-interest groups spent approximately $4.7 million on television advertisements in 2009 and $12.1 million in 2010. Television spots aired in ten out of 13 states that held contested elections for supreme court seats in 2010, as well as in four states that held retention elections. All told, in 2010 judicial election TV spots aired in Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado,13 Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Montana, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, Washington and West Virginia.

According to satellite captures of advertising in major TV markets,14 $12,173,940 was spent nationally on TV air time in 2010 state supreme court elections. Of that, the lion’s share—more than $10.5 million—was spent in the final month of the general election campaign. A whopping $5.19 million—nearly 43% of total spending for the year—was spent in the week leading up to the election alone, from Tuesday, Oct. 26 through Election Day.

Total Spending on TV Ads per Biennium, 2001–2010

2-2 Total Spending on TV Ads, Biennium

Data courtesy TNS Media Intelligence/CMAG.

Monthly Spending Trend, All Groups, 2010

2-Monthly Spending

State Totals, 2010
(in order of total TV spending)
StateSpot CountEst. Spending
North Carolina1,499$353,110
West Virginia175$26,060
Grand Totals37,252$12,173,940

*In Colorado no advertisements endorsing or opposing candidates were aired, though a nonpartisan coalition sponsored a public education campaign to provide voters with information on the state’s judicial elections. See note 13.

State Totals, 2009
(in order of total TV spending)
StateSpot CountEst. Spending
Grand Totals7,715$4,667,473

$12,173,940 was spent nationally on TV air time in 2010 state supreme court elections.”

Spending by Non-Candidate Groups Remains High in 2010

In 2010, spending on supreme court TV advertising was split relatively evenly between judicial candidates and non-candidate groups. Non-candidate groups spent $5.98 million (just over 49% of all spending on television airtime), while candidates spent $6.19 million.

Four of the top five TV spenders were non-candidate groups. The Michigan Republican Party ranked first overall in TV spending ($2.0 million). The only candidate on the top-spender list, Illinois Justice Thomas Kilbride, came in second, spending about $1.6 million on TV in his record-setting bid for retention. [See State in Focus: Illinois] The Michigan State Democratic Party ranked third ($1.4 million); the Chamber of Commerce-affiliated Partnership for Ohio’s Future ranked fourth, spending $846,000 on TV ads supporting two Republican candidates in contested Ohio elections; and the Law Enforcement Alliance of America, which bought $803,000 worth of TV ads supporting two Republican candidates for the Michigan Supreme Court, ranked fifth.

Sponsorship and Content: Who Paid for What Ads

Analyzing the 2010 totals in terms of the numbers of TV advertisements aired (as opposed to the number of dollars spent) reveals that candidates purchased 20,296 television ad spots, or, 59.6% of the 37,252 total television spots purchased. While candidates paid for the majority of TV spots overall—just under 60%—they paid for only about a quarter of attack ads—27%. Non-candidate groups, including special interests and political parties, accounted for 3 of every 4 attack ads.

Ads Aired, by Sponsor, 2010

2-3+4 Ads and Attack Ads by Sponsors

Attack Ads Aired, by Sponsor, 2010

Data courtesy TNS Media Intelligence/CMAG.

Advertisements aired by parties and special-interest groups in 2010 often sought to play on voters’ ideological leanings, sensationalizing rather than focusing on candidates’ backgrounds or qualifications. Most notably, in 2010 almost 64% of advertisements sponsored by parties focused on criminal justice themes, often accusing disfavored candidates of being soft on crime.

Nationally, while the majority of ads were run by candidates themselves, the majority of attack ads were run by the state political parties or independent groups. Almost half (49.1%) of the attack ads were run by parties, even though parties only accounted for 23.1% of the total number of ads run nationally. By contrast, more than 90% of the ads run by candidates focused on issues other than criminal justice: fewer than one ad in 10 sponsored by candidates referenced whether the candidate (or opponent) was “tough on crime.”

About half—46.2%—of ads run by parties were attack ads directly targeting opposition candidates and another 17.6% contrasted candidates, often using negative portrayals of the opposing candidate. Only 36% of ads run by parties sought to promote a candidate without engaging in any mudslinging. In contrast, 81.36% of candidate-sponsored ads were positive promotions of that candidate and only 18.64% of candidate-sponsored ads even mentioned an opposing candidate.

Candidates in nonpartisan races aired no attack ads. However, as shown by the increasingly large infusions of cash from special-interest groups for attack ad buys in nonpartisan races over the past decade, the nonpartisan label offers decreasing insulation against big-money campaigns in both contested and one-candidate retention elections. The judicial election campaigns of 2010 provide further support for this distressing assessment. The nonpartisan retention election of Justice Thomas Kilbride to the Illinois Supreme Court is a prime example of this trend. [See State in Focus: Illinois]

Sponsors, 2010 Supreme Court Elections
StateSponsorSpot CountEst. Spending
Special Interest944$374,190
Special Interest30$1,930
Special Interest*1,052$134,820
Special Interest119$45,860
Special Interest638$293,030
Special Interest912$803,770
North CarolinaTotal1,499$353,110
Special Interest2,405$846,290
West VirginiaTotal175$26,060
Grand Totals37,112$12,132,100

*In Colorado no advertisements endorsing or opposing candidates were aired, though a nonpartisan coalition sponsored a public education campaign to provide voters with information on the state’s judicial elections. See note 13.

“In 2010, parties and independent groups accounted for almost 50% of all TV spending.”

Party Ad Tone

2-5 Party Ad Tone

Candidate Ad Tone

2-6 Candidate Ad Tone

Data courtesy TNS Media Intelligence/CMAG.

Read Our State in Focus: Illinois

2010 Elections—State Snapshots

Continue Reading Chapter 3, Implications of the 2009-10 Elections
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