Erika Franklin Fowler reflects on campaign finance reform issues

Since the Supreme Court ruled on Citizens United v. FEC in 2010, many Americans have worried that the consequent relaxation  of campaign spending restrictions could have dramatic effects on the American political process. On February 15, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project,  Erika Franklin Fowler, spoke to a packed classroom in Diamond about the effects that her organization has seen since the landmark case.
Since 2010, the Wesleyan Media Project, headquartered at Wesleyan University, has been instrumental in analyzing  changes in campaign spending. Co-directed by Michael Franz of Bowdoin College and Travis Ridout of Washington State University, the Project works by examining advertising data from 200 media markets across the country, using tracking devices to pick up on the unique sound waves of each ad. These political ads are then watched by students  to determine the ad’s sponsor, tone, theme, and other criteria that could  give researchers greater insight into emerging trends. One interesting trend that they have found, Fowler said, was that Republican ads have significantly more female voiceovers.
During her presentation, Fowler confirmed what many Americans already know:  in terms of their prevalence and cost, political advertisements are increasing dramatically. She noted that “2012 was a record-pulverizing year” in the number of ads released. However, she also clarified that the money invested in advertising doesn’t always pay its dividends. Fowler pointed to the 2014 Presidential Election, where Government Mitt Romney spent $1 million more on advertising than Obama but ran 41,596 less ads, due in large part to market pressures.
In contrast to the role of money, Fowler spoke unequivocally about the effects that Citizens United has had on the influence of interest groups. In 2008, only 1.1% of all ads were produced by interest groups. The most recent data from December 2015 shows that, now, 81% of political ads come from outside groups instead of candidates. According to Fowler, these ads from outside groups can have tangible effects on the electorate. In some cases, interest group ads are more effective than candidate ads.
Ads from outside groups tend to be negative towards opposition candidates, but often have no direct connection to their own favored candidate, allowing that candidate to keep their hands clean. Fowler also noted that Super PACs that are less familiar to the electorate are very effective because the audience sees no direct political allegiance. This explains why group ads are most effective among independents and voters from the rival political party, while candidate ads work better with partisan voters. Many of these Super PACs, Fowler went on, have adopted simplistic and patriotic names. She recalled that the “Americans for an American America” should be a Super PAC—only to discover that the group actually  already existed.
Near the end of the lecture, Fowler discussed the results from her most recent research, which focused on whether or not  outside interest groups—with their own agendas—were hijacking candidate messages and promising steps not endorsed by the candidates. Along with her co-directors, Fowlers split the groups based on whether they were single issue or multi-issue and if they  were membership-based or not.
An example of a single issue, member-oriented group would be the NRA, while a multi-issue non-member example would be a Super PAC. Through their research, they found these multi-issue non-member groups are most likely to converge with candidate advertising. However, there is no strong evidence to suggest that they are hijacking candidate messages.
Fowler finished the lecture by summarizing her findings and reiterating the growing influences of interest groups and dark money, the term for donations that are given by anonymous donors. However, while many Americans are apprehensive about these new players  in campaign finance, she believes the new advertising influx isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, this spate of advertising is more likely to inform voters on the issues. Whether these groups will eventually hijack their candidates, however, only time will tell.

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