Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Sponsorship, Disclosure, and Donors: Limiting the Impact of outside Group Ads

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Sponsorship, Disclosure, and Donors: Limiting the Impact of outside Group Ads

Article excerpt

Interest group involvement in political campaigns has skyrocketed in recent elections, thanks in large part to recent campaign finance decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court. Between 2008 and 2012, outside group spending in the presidential race rose from $286 million to $1.1 billion (Smith and Kimball 2013). A third of the advertisements in the presidential general election of 2012 were sponsored by outside groups (Fowler and Ridout 2012), with just over half of pro-Romney advertisements aired by such groups. Moreover, almost 30 percent of ads aired in U.S. Senate races in 2012 were sponsored by outside groups, up from 15 percent in 2010 and around 5 percent in the early 2000s (Franz 2012). At the same time, the type of interest group involved in electioneering has changed, moving away from traditional political action committees affiliated with long-standing interest groups and unions and moving toward 501c4 organizations, 527s, and super PACs-groups that raise and spend unlimited money on behalf of candidates but often have no real connection to any traditional organized interest (Franz 2012).

As the role of nonparty independent groups in electioneering has risen, scholars have started to investigate their influence. The emerging consensus is that interest group advertising, especially that by relatively unknown groups, is more effective than advertising sponsored by candidates (Brooks and Murov 2012; Dowling and Wichowsky 2014; Weber, Dunaway, and Johnson 2012). This scholarship suggests that voters hold candidates accountable for their attacks, lowering their approval of the attacking candidate, but do not similarly hold outside groups accountable for their attacks by reducing their evaluations of the favored candidate.1

Some potential responses to this, such as regulating how much groups spend, how much they raise, or the sources of their donations, are nonstarters, as the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed that such regulations are unconstitutional. And recent court decisions in cases like Wisconsin Right to Life and Citizens United have only served to reduce the hurdles to independent group involvement in election campaigns. But one accountability provision that has, by and large, withstood court scrutiny is disclosure of donors.

In this research, we use a survey experiment to examine the extent to which disclosure influences the effectiveness of political advertising, varying the ad sponsor (candidate versus group), means of disclosure (in the ad itself vs. in the news media) and the type of group that is being disclosed (the large-donor groups commonly found today vs. a small-donor, grassroots group). We find that group-sponsored ads are more effective than candidate-sponsored ads, but disclosure does reduce the effectiveness of group-sponsored ads, making them as equally effective as candidate-sponsored ads. Interestingly, though, revealing that a group is supported by small donors does not make the group's ad any more effective than an ad paid for by large donors.

Our research builds on existing scholarly research on the impacts of ad disclosure in several ways. First, it hones in on the small-donor versus large-donor distinction. By including a small-donor treatment, which has not been done before, we are able to examine whether group credibility can be enhanced, not just depressed, through disclosure. Second, our research uses a more realistic manipulation of the ad disclaimer than previous research has used.

Our research also speaks to policymakers. More specifically, if fuller disclosure-or certain means of disclosure-can influence the persuasiveness of group-sponsored advertising, this points to a credible (and constitutionally sound) policy strategy for campaign finance reformers who want to reduce the attractiveness of funneling large campaign contributions through outside groups.

Ad Sponsorship and Disclosure

An increasing number of studies have investigated the impact of sponsorship on the effectiveness of messages in a political race. …

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