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Political Ad Spending Way Up From 2012

Contested primaries in both political parties have led to another cycle of record political ad spending, according to a new analysis of campaign advertising by the Wesleyan Media Project.

The analysis, which covers ads from Jan. 1, 2015, through May 8, 2016, tallies $408 million in ad spending compared to $120 million in 2012 when President Obama sought re-election.

Updated at 3 p.m. ET with details:

Bernie Sanders has spent more money — $73.7 million — to air more ads than any other presidential candidate. So far, he's aired 124,732 ads, with 99.9 percent of them produced by the campaign. Hillary Clinton ranked second at $62.6 million with 105,376 ads, 99.4 percent of them from the Clinton campaign. On the Republican side, just 24 percent of the ad spending came directly from the candidates' campaigns with the remainder coming from outside groups, such as superPACs.

De facto Republican nominee Donald Trump aired 33,050 ad spots in that period costing $18.5 million. That's less than vanquished rivals Ted Cruz ($37.6 million), Marco Rubio ($72.7 million) and Jeb Bush ($66.9 million) all spent.

Sanders and Clinton both benefited from the federally mandated discounted advertising rates for candidates. Republicans Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush both had more spending on their behalf than Clinton. But because they outsourced advertising to outside groups, the money bought substantially fewer ads: 59,275 for Rubio's team, 39,062 for Bush's team.

It's no surprise that most of the action has been in the Republican primaries. The season isn't over yet, but candidates and outside groups together have aired 249,327 TV ads. That's up 34 percent from 2012, and 212 percent from 2008.

The media project also looked at Senate primaries, and found that undisclosed, "dark" money accounts for 62 percent of 48,072 ads aired by outside groups. The spenders that don't disclose their donors include the Natural Resources Defense Council, a 501(c)(3) charity; 501(c)(4) "social welfare" groups; 501(c)(6) business associations; and at least one corporation.

The Wesleyan Media Project is a consortium of political scientists from Wesleyan University, Bowdoin College and the University of Washington. The advertising data come from Kantar Media/CMAG.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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