Michigan Campaign Finance Network’s research provides the most accurate estimates of the cost of Michigan’s elections available, but they still remain just that: an estimate, because so much dark money spending remains hidden.
MCFN presents the cost of elections in Michigan as an absolute minimum, rather than a total amount. Without more comprehensive disclosure laws, there’ll always be some distance between these numbers and a true total. It’s an exceptionally high floor regardless.
Here’s a short explanation of how MCFN arrives at its total:
Campaign fundraising and independent spending:
MCFN relies on disclosures to the Michigan Department of State for state offices and the Federal Election Commission for federal candidates to gauge the total amount of candidate fundraising and the disclosed independent spending.
For the more than 20 years MCFN has tracked the cost of Michigan’s elections, MCFN has used a candidate’s or committee’s fundraising, rather than their spending, in calculating an election’s cost because it represents the expense to the candidate’s donors, rather than the campaign.
These campaign finance agencies also require independent political action committees to name the candidates they’re supporting or opposing in their reports, and MCFN uses this spending, in part, to determine the disclosed outside help they receive, primarily in the form of ads attacking their opponents. This isn’t a perfect link, however, as advertisers often get around this by running issue ads which are exempt from disclosure outside of a certain window before an election.
While some dark money organizations such as Super PACs have to disclose their spending, many other dark money groups can get around disclosure rules by running issue ads. MCFN uses the firm AdImpact to track advertising spending on radio, television and cable TV to ensure the totals are as broad and accurate as possible.
Some of the spending that appears on television and radio is also available online as it is reported to The Federal Communications Commission by broadcasters..
Online and social media advertising
Of all the mediums mentioned here, online political spending is the most difficult to track. Companies aren’t required by law to report this information and what they do provide is far from perfect. The world’s largest social media platform is one of two major tech companies — Google being the other — that self-reports the spending on advertising that it considers to be political. Twitter and Bing, on the other hand, have banned political advertising from their platforms outright. For Facebook, spending on each ad is provided as a range with up to $5,000 separating the top and bottom of the amount. MCFN uses the minimum amount provided for each ad in order to be as accurate as possible in reporting the total. It means that for an ad where the spending range is between $0 and $99, MCFN uses $0 in its calculations.
For presidential elections, many of these ads are not displayed solely in Michigan, and in those cases the spending is weighted to the proportion of the ad’s appearances within Michigan. For Michigan campaigns who spend money on fundraising ads outside the state, the full cost is added. Campaigns and PACs that have their own fundraising tracked by MCFN are excluded from these totals.
Facebook decides whether ads are political with an at least partially automated system. It doesn’t disclose how it works or the criteria they use. Often promoted posts from reputable media sources are flagged as political, and if an ad is simply a video or photo with no link or accompanying text, Facebook is unable to detect the content of the ad or require disclosure from the purchaser, which more than likely allows some dark money advertisers to avoid disclosure.
While Google also provides similar information about the ads run through their platform, their spending ranges are so broad even providing an estimate of the total would be so vague it couldn’t be responsibly reported. There’s little transparency in saying someone spent between $1,000 and $50,000 on an ad.
There are many other companies online where political advertisers can spend to spread their message, so this again remains an incomplete picture of the cost.
With your support, MCFN can further build out its research abilities to capture and track more of the money flowing into our elections. Please consider supporting our work with a donation made through Network For Good or PayPal.