Buying A Political Ad? Let A SuperPAC Foot The Bill

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There has been one constant throughout the GOP campaign — Mitt Romney and the superPAC that supports him have vastly outspent his rivals.

An NPR analysis of various campaign data finds a new trend is now apparent — most of the TV ads supporting Romney have been bought by that superPAC, Restore Our Future, while Romney's campaign is spending little on TV.

If you add up the numbers, the bottom line looks like this: Romney and the superPAC backing him outspent Newt Gingrich and the superPAC backing him by more than 5-to-1 in advance of last Tuesday's primaries in Alabama and Mississippi.

They outspent Rick Santorum and his superPAC by more than 15-to-1. That's based on filings to the Federal Election Commission, and data complied by Kantar CMAG and reported by The Washington Post.

Saturating The Air Waves

In Alabama the Romney campaign spent just a fraction of what Restore Our Future did on TV, and in Mississippi the Romney campaign spent no money on TV ads, while the superPAC bought $1.3 million in TV time. In effect, the Romney campaign has let Restore Our Future become its TV advertising arm.

"It's a very interesting development in how campaigns, I think, are going to be run in the future, and I think the likely outcome of what we're seeing is that the quote independent superPACs are really going to become the major mechanism of delivering TV advertising," said Donald Tobin, a campaign finance law expert at The Ohio State University.

Tobin says by leaving it up to the superPAC to handle and pay for the TV ad buys, the campaign itself can focus on other things, such as paying for staff and travel, office and organizing expenses.

And it's not just Romney's campaign that is allowing superPACs to handle the ad buys. Gingrich's campaign spent about a 10th of what the superPAC backing him, Winning Our Future, did on ad buys, such as a radio spot that ran in Alabama.

The Santorum campaign also spent no money on TV in Alabama or Mississippi, while the Red White and Blue Fund, the superPAC that backs him, spent some $220,000 in those states on ads. The most recent ad is currently running in Illinois ahead of the state's primary on Tuesday.

The superPACs have advantages over campaign organizations: Primarily they can accept unlimited donations, allowing a few wealthy backers to give large sums, something tailor-made for TV campaigns.

Does Saturation Enable A Win?

And, despite being hugely outspent in Alabama and Mississippi, Santorum actually won those states, while Romney finished third in both places.

"One of the things that I think political scientists are going to look at is — is there a saturation point where you know there's just a law of diminishing returns ... you've reached everybody and they know your message and so shouting louder and longer doesn't necessarily help," Tobin says. He says he thinks there's an obvious lesson in Santorum's wins — piling on the most TV ads doesn't guarantee a victory.

Still, that's not slowing Restore Our Future; the superPAC has already spent more than $2 million on ads in Illinois supporting Romney ahead of the primary; the superPAC backing Santorum has spent just over $300,000.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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