Political advertisements -- once an election season annoyance -- are quickly becoming a constant presence, according to data from the FCC and advertising analytics companies.
Spending on TV ads during odd-numbered years, even in the absence of federal and statewide elections, has more than doubled since 2017, and there are no signs it is slowing down.
According to data from Ad Impact, a firm which tracks political spending nationwide, expenditures on political ads in the Phoenix market in 2021 have already exceeded the total amount of spending in all of 2017.
Four years ago, spending on political ads topped $5.7 million. This year, midway through the second quarter, political ad spending has already topped $6.7 million, according to the company.
Through the first quarter of 2021, political spending in Phoenix topped $2.3 million, compared with $1.8 million in the first quarter of 2019, a 31% increase. Nationwide, 2021 political ad spending has increased about 33%, although experts attribute some of that increase to heavy spending in two Georgia U.S. Senate runoff races in January.
The enormous increases in spending follow an explosion of growth across the political spectrum. The total cost of the 2020 election topped $14 billion, twice the cost of the 2016 cycle, which was estimated at $6.5 billion, according to the non-profit Center for Responsive Politics. The presidential race in 2020 cost $5.2 billion, compared to $2.65 billion for the 2016 race.
Experts say the amount of money is so high, voters just won't get a break from those political ads. In Arizona, the first declared Republican candidate in the 2022 U.S. Senate race, former power company executive Jim Lamon, entered the race barely three months after his presumptive opponent, Democrat Senator Mark Kelly, took office. Lamon begins the campaign more than 18 months before election day.
"There is the political desire to get ahead of the competition, to be the first mover and to set the table," said political consultant Stan Barnes, a former Arizona state lawmaker. "If you have the resources to do that first, then timing is almost irrelevant."
Barnes doesn't believe the constant barrage of political advertising will turn voters off. "They work, and people remember them," he said. Barnes acknowledges political advertising still can't "buy" an election, pointing to the unsuccessful presidential campaign of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Bloomberg spent a staggering $1 billion dollars in the course of just 100 days, far out-pacing any other opponent, but failed to gain traction in early primary states, ultimately losing the Democratic nomination to Joe Biden.
Bloomberg's spending helped Democrats far out-pace Republicans in political capital in 2020. Even without the money spent by Bloomberg and billionaire Tom Steyer, Democrats and affiliated groups still out-spent Republicans by about $1.6 billion, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
A huge part of the spending explosion is due to "independent expenditure" or "dark money" groups, which are allowed to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money, without revealing their donors. Nearly all of the odd-numbered-year spending in the Phoenix market is attributed to non-candidate groups.
Barnes does see a big downside to the explosion in political spending, however: the inability of a grassroots candidate to gain momentum.
"Nowadays if you can’t bring out a seven digit number, then no one‘s even going to talk to you," he said. "You simply have to show an ability to raise millions of dollars, or the crowd that follows these things will not follow you."