Alaska News

Costly campaigns are big business for Alaska media outlets

A torrent of money has flooded into the U.S. Senate race between incumbent Sen. Mark Begich and his challenger, Dan Sullivan. The more than $50 million spent so far has shattered statewide records, and with less than a week to go before the vote, Alaskans can expect the deluge of radio, television and online ads to continue -- even grow.

A closely divided U.S. Senate has focused both attention and money on Alaska, as more than $36 million has already been spent by outside groups -- political action committees, nonprofits, national party organizations, and others. Another $14 million or so has been spent by the Sullivan and Begich campaigns. Almost all of the money is being spent on television, radio and digital media outlets. The spending has made local NBC affiliate KTUU the nation's most prolific offerer of political advertising, with more than 12,000 ads shown on the station so far this campaign season, according to ad tracking website CMAG.

According to the Federal Election Commission and the political spending watchdog group, the Alaska Senate race is the nation's sixth most-expensive. But when it comes to cost-per-vote, the rest of the U.S. pales in comparison to the Last Frontier. According to the Sunlight Foundation, outside spending in the Alaska Senate race could come to $120 or more per vote. And that number goes even higher -- as much as $200 per vote, after factoring in the money spent by the campaigns themselves.

Either way, a lot of money -- more than enough to pay for the annual operating and capital budget for the city of Fairbanks -- has been poured into Internet, television and radio advertising.

The ad boom has caused television and radio rates to soar and availability to dwindle, making it difficult for others on the ballot -- yes, there is a governor's race, and most state House and Senate seats are also up for grabs -- to get their messages out. The New York Times reports YouTube and Facebook ad space aimed at Alaskans was sold out earlier this year. Bill Walker's gubernatorial campaign said it has had difficulty finding ad space on Internet radio provider Pandora.

Gov. Sean Parnell's campaign said it had anticipated the ad shortage.

"We planned pretty well," said Parnell campaign spokesperson Luke Miller. "We had booked up a lot of our stuff earlier in the summer because we knew it would be a hurdle in our campaign."


Does spending matter?

"Are people more literate about candidates because of all this spending?" asked Al Tompkins, senior faculty of broadcasting and online media for the journalism organization Poynter Institute. "Are they any smarter because of all of this? I bet they are not."

Tompkins said big political races, especially federal ones, are targeting television advertising much more than other mediums.

"Why is television still vital for these messages?" Tompkins asked. "Why hasn't online or social media broken the cartel? And the fact, is they haven't, and neither has print."

Tompkins claims geographically large states like Alaska, California, Texas and Florida pose a problem television advertising can solve. Because it is nearly impossible to get to every town and city -- a prospect particularly difficult in Alaska -- television presents, perhaps, the best way to get a message out to as many people as possible. But Tompkins cautions that often leads to general issue campaigning and hinders discussion about micro-local issues.

"Anchorage and Nome are a universe apart," Tompkins said.

Different rates for different groups

The rate paid for political advertising changes depending on who is writing the check. For politicians, the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Elections Commission set the rate, calculated as the lowest rate for any given commercial purchased during a so-called political window, generally 60 days before an election. In this year's race, that can mean candidates can find television ad time in a well-watched time period for a few hundred dollars.

But issue advocacy groups and PACs -- which can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money advertising either for or against a candidate -- don't get the political rate. For them, the going rate prevails, and it can change as demand increases and available ad time on popular shows dries up.

And with more than $30 million being spent in Alaska, things are getting spendy, especially in Anchorage. According to information posted at the FEC's website, the anti-Bill Walker for governor group, Citizens Against Walker, will be paying $18,000 for one 30-second ad airing during Sunday Night Football on Nov. 2, just two days before the election. That ad normally goes for less than $1,000.

"That's sold at open market rates, basically auction rates," said Andy MacLeod, KTUU's general manager. "And those are the big numbers that you see reported."

MacLeod said demand from outside political groups has inflated the price for such ads by as much as 20 times the normal rate.

Anchorage CBS affiliate KTVA, which did not respond to requests for comment for this story, was paid much more than usual -- $8,000 -- by a pro-Dan Sullivan group, Alaska's Energy/America's Values, for a 30-second ad during last week's Seattle Seahawks NFL game.

The ad buys are so prolific that Anchorage Media Group, which also did not respond to inquiries for this story, is seeing radio commercials go for as much as $450 each, and receiving orders for tens of thousands of dollars per week in advertising, just for the U.S. Senate race. The company's media file is so stuffed with political buys for the race that records for groups opposing or supporting Begich and Sullivan have their own file folders.

The times, they are a-changin'

Being or becoming a politician has become more complicated and much more expensive than when Abraham Lincoln won his first presidential election in 1860. Without radio, television and the Internet, Lincoln and his three opponents spent a total of just $3 million (adjusted for inflation to 2014 currency). Back then, campaigning was a very personal affair with politicians crisscrossing the country to deliver their messages to the masses via stump speeches and newspaper interviews. Some 154 years later, almost 20 times as much money as was spent on Lincoln's presidential election has been dropped into the race for Alaska's U.S. Senate seat.

Put another way, the more than $50 million spent so far on the Begich-Sullivan race is a full third of what Bill Clinton spent (in 2014 dollars) to win his 1992 presidential campaign -- one of the last presidential campaigns before online ad buys became a critical component of the budget.

With more people to reach, and a seemingly infinite variety of ways to reach them, it makes sense it would cost more to run a campaign these days. Who that additional spending will pay off for remains to be seen, but one thing is for certain -- Alaskans can expect their commercial breaks to become much less political Nov. 5.

Contact Sean Doogan at

Sean Doogan

Sean Doogan is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch and Alaska Dispatch News.