The Supreme Court decision lifting restrictions on corporate and union spending on campaign advertising could mean more political money for local media. But how much more is unclear as politically motivated groups have long found ways around campaign finance laws.
"Money always finds a way to seep into politics," says Evan Tracey, CEO of the Campaign Media Analysis Group at TNS Media Intelligence. "It's not like all the folks that could benefit from this ruling hadn't already figured out the necessary workarounds to get the money into the process. It just turns a revolving door into a swinging door."
With as many as 80 seats in the House of Representatives and a dozen in the Senate up for grabs, TNS estimates that $2.6 billion will be spent on political advertising in 2010. That estimate is on par with 2006 and 2008 estimates. Much of that money will go to a handful of states with close races, tightening up local inventory which could in turn spur more national political campaigns.
"You can make the case that because the map is so big and there are so many races you might see some groups forgo trying to pinpoint 20 House races and just run one campaign pinpointing one party or the other party," says Tracey. "It's not far-fetched that something like national cable could see some political dollars [in 2010]."
The ruling, which was not entirely unexpected, could also make messaging more effective because it lifts restrictions on explicit "vote for" language imposed by the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law.
"It opens up this avenue for people to really go out there and take some flyers," adds Tracey. "If someone has an axe to grind with individual members of Congress, they're now going to have an avenue to do that."
The high season for political advertising is traditionally the period after Labor Day leading up to elections in November. The ruling struck down the ban on advocacy advertising 30 days prior to an election and as such will likely spur more spending late in the races. But the ruling could also funnel more money into the system earlier in states where groups may perceive an opportunity to knock off vulnerable incumbent candidates with negative advertising.
President Obama slammed the ruling, calling it "a green light to a new stampede of special interest money" in politics.
And Representatives Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) vowed to introduce new campaign finance legislation.
"It will open the floodgate, if left unchecked and unchallenged, to more and more special interest money," said Hollen.
But the flagging economy could temper the predicted "stampede."
"The economy is still bad and corporations have boards of directors and shareholders," says Tracey. "So I'm not sure you're going to see big corporations plunking down a bunch of money for political advertising."
Interestingly, Tracey posited that it is Democrats who are better positioned to take advantage of the new ruling.
"The Democrats already have this structure in place because their support groups come from places like Hollywood, the dot-com [companies], labor unions, environmental groups. They have a pretty good built-in infrastructure to take advantage of this."