Campaign ads, financing, transparency studied

Travis Ridout
PULLMAN – Electoral transparency and better decisions about regulating campaign financing are the goals of a WSU faculty member working with others on a nonpartisan initiative to track political ads.
Travis Ridout, associate professor of political science, and colleagues are working through the Wesleyan Media Project, a nonpartisan initiative to comprehensively track and analyze federal and state political advertisements by candidates, parties and special interest groups.
While campaign transparency is the short-term goal of this work, the researchers hope their analysis of the data will influence decisions in Congress about how to regulate campaign financing in the future.
“What we hope to do in the immediate term is to let the public know who is paying for all of the ads that they see on television,” said Ridout. “People should know what groups are funneling millions of dollars into trying to influence election outcomes.”
Ridout said the research shows this election season is “poised to break advertising records.”
The first results of this ongoing research were released Sept. 27 and can be viewed at:
The project tracks and analyzes all broadcast advertisements aired by or on behalf of federal and state election candidates in every media market in the nation. This provides real-time information on the extent of corporate and union spending in federal election campaigns across the country.
Project press releases include details on who is engaging in advertising spending and which candidates are benefiting. The initiative also focuses on broader political advertising.
“We’ve got House ads, Senate ads, gubernatorial ads, and ads for judicial races and state offices,” Ridout said. “If it aired on a broadcast television station or a national cable station, we’ve got it.”
The results eventually will be compiled into a database that will be available to scholars who study political campaigns and campaign finance.
“We’ll be able to tell you if Republicans are mentioning Obama more than Democrats, whether Republicans are running on health care or Democrats are,” Ridout said. “We’ll know who is mentioning Sarah Palin in their ads, and who is running the most negative and most positive campaigns.”
Five undergraduate WSU students trained as coders work with Ridout to analyze the ads along with five students at Bowdoin in Maine and five students at Wesleyan in Connecticut.
“Although we’re still ramping up, once we’re fully operational we should be able to code 500-plus ads a week,” Ridout said, adding that already there have been more than 4,000 unique ads aired “hundreds of thousands of times” in races this year.
“Of course, that number will be increasing over the next few weeks as Election Day approaches,” he said.
“We believe the data will contribute to studies that scholars like me conduct on how influential advertising is on the electorate,” Ridout said. “How many votes does running a thousand ads actually influence? We’re looking for answers to questions like that.”
The WMP is supported by a $5,000 grant from the WSU College of Liberal Arts and by grants from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Sunlight Foundation, Wesleyan University and Bowdoin College.


Ridout co-directs the project with Erika Franklin Fowler of Wesleyan University and Michael M. Franz of Bowdoin College.

For more information on the Wesleyan Media Project, go to:
Wesleyan Media Project: