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Super PAC Attack: A new media project out of Wesleyan follows the money

ElectionsMitt RomneyThe Supremes (music group)Wesleyan UniversityDemocratic PartyU.S. Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court's decision to let special interest groups spend anything they want influencing elections has triggered a political earthquake, and a Wesleyan University team is playing a huge role in mapping the fault lines.

Following the recent Florida Republican primary, the Wesleyan Media Project caught national attention for its analysis of who was spending how much on campaign advertising, looking at ads financed by candidates versus those paid for by "SuperPACs."

Turns out overall ad spending is down, compared to this point in the 2008 presidential race, but spending by special-interest political action committees is way up.

PAC spending on TV and radio campaign ads has gone from 3 percent of the total back in 2008 to about 44 percent in this election cycle, according to the project's most recent report. Those kinds of detailed numbers attracted the attention of virtually every major news outlet in the nation that cares about the impact of the Supremes' landmark Citizens United ruling.

"We're very pleased so far," Erika Franklin Fowler, an assistant professor of government at Wesleyan and one of the directors of the media project, says of the national attention the program is getting. "One of the primary goals of the project is to shed more light on who's spending the money."

The project is a collaboration between experts and students at Wesleyan, Bowdoin College and Washington State University.

Fowler theorizes the drop in overall campaign ad spending (down from $49.8 million at this point in the 2008 election cycle to just $28.9 million so far this time around) has two basic causes. The first is that we've only got Republicans clawing at each other over the primary air waves this time; four years ago both major parties were waging primary battles, which meant a hell of a lot more spending on ads.

The fact that Democrats aren't waging presidential primaries this year means less competition for air time. Less competition means it costs less to buy air time this year.

Another reason cited in the media project analysis is that Mitt Romney's campaign spent far less for ads in Iowa than in 2008.

Romney did use his deep pockets (and those of his SuperPAC allies) to dominate the Florida primary ad wars, paying for a mind-numbing barrage of nearly 13,000 TV campaign commercials in that state.

Fowler says the Wesleyan Media Project is using special computer technology developed by Kantar Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group that allows tracking of political ads in all 210 media markets across the U.S. The programs can recognize new ads and record them, then keep track of how many times those ads get aired.

Fourteen paid student interns at the three schools then watch video of each new ad and fill out a lengthy questionnaire. The list of questions covers sponsorship; issues raised; emotional tone (angry, calm, etc.); type of music used (is it scary, inspiring, etc.); and which major political figures are mentioned, if any.

The project's long-term goal is a database tracking all political advertising by source in all federal election campaigns to let people see whose money is being used to sway votes.

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