NORTH CAROLINA — It’s hotter than usual in North Carolina this summer.
And much of the heat is coming from the high-intensity air war being waged here, with presidential campaign ad spending surpassing $20 million as of July 22 in a state that has traditionally been a bystander in presidential contests (until 2008). The ad spending numbers at the Washington Post’s Campaign Ad Tracker say presidential candidates, PACs and interest groups have to date spent $14.5 million in Charlotte (and $5.6 million in Raleigh). Those figures (which tally ads that have actually hit the airwaves, not total buys announced) put Charlotte in the same category as key markets in other swing states—like Tampa ($15.2 million), Cleveland ($13.6), and Las Vegas ($12.6).
In addition to the presidential ad deluge, during combative GOP primaries here, North Carolina’s rural, Charlotte-abutting 8th District Congressional race drew more outside spending than any other district in the country, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (a key follow-the-money resource CJR profiled here.) The 9th District, too—now redesigned in a sinewy shape that takes in Charlotte’s southern and northern suburbs but avoids the center city—was not spared (I wrote for CJR here in April on the mixed results of efforts to factcheck one 9th District candidate’s misleading ad).
Local media here have the opportunity—indeed, the obligation, given the ad saturation—to stay on the story of this spending spree, including shedding light for North Carolinians on who’s spending (whose money) and when and how the ads mislead.
So far, this sort of coverage has been spotty—with some bright spots. Let’s start with some of the solid work so far (much of which has focused on North Carolina races):
The Charlotte Observer’s Jim Morrill and David Perlmutt earlier this month examined why the GOP primary runoff in North Carolina’s 8th District had become a “magnet for money” from outside groups, calling on Bob Beirsack from the Center for Responsive Politics to explain that since the 8th is “largely rural and expects a small turnout outside groups ‘can get a bigger bang for the buck’.” In late June, Perlmutt talked with 9th District voters who expressed dismay at “the flurry of negative radio ads and mailers” and the lack of candidates explaining, as one voter put it, “what they’re going to do.” Morrill also logged spending in the 9th about monthly on the Observer’s Campaign Tracker blog, including a post on one candidate’s massive self-financing. (This work managed to avoid the tone of almost-gleeful wonder about the amounts being spent, a tone one sometimes encounters in national stories that, as Walter Shapiro explored for CJR here, routinely source from political consultants and others who make their money from candidates.) Elsewhere, Lee Weisbecker in the Triangle Business Journal took brief note of the presidential ad blitz, which was also a topic on a July 10th segment of News 14 Carolina’s Capitol Tonight.
But given the volume of political advertising here, North Carolina media—and particularly Charlotte media—need to do more for its audiences. Below, I offer some basic suggestions for improving coverage of the money and ad deluge—suggestions that I chewed over last week with Jim Walser, senior editor/investigations and supervisor of political coverage for the Charlotte Observer.
Explain and illuminate outside spending: Don’t leave it to Stephen Colbert to educate voters on how these TV ads are being funded—often, not by the candidates themselves. When reporting on outside spending, identify what type of group is doing the spending (super PAC? Non-disclosing 501(c)4?) and, when possible, whose money the group is spending. Point readers and viewers to resources for digging deeper, if they wish, such as to campaign finance filings at the Federal Election Commission or to the Center for Responsive Politics’s OpenSecrets.org.
The Observer’s Walser told me that he hopes the paper will spend more time on the presidential campaign and get back to examining campaign donations closely after the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte (September 3-6)—on which, he said, the Charlotte newsroom is now focused. (In late March, the Observer announced a Convention-coverage partnership with Politico, which, ideally, could ease the Obsever’s burden). The Observer launched a detailed graphic on donations flowing from North Carolina back in February, along with a stage-setting piece that explained North Carolina’s importance in the presidential contest this year. But the graphic has not been updated since and is not obviously linked from the newspaper’s online politics page. The paper should build on (and then better showcase) what it started earlier this year.