Thanks to a Democratic source who tracks media buys, we've put together a comprehensive new chart of all ad reservations for the four biggest groups that work on House races: the DCCC and House Majority PAC for Democrats, and the NRCC and Congressional Leadership Fund for Republicans. (HMP and CLF both have close ties to their respective party leadership and can be thought of as the "official unofficial" House super PACs for each side.)
Until now, we'd been relying on media reports and press releases to keep track of these reservations, but our information has been incomplete and sometimes contradictory. That's because its availability depends on the skill of reporters and the forthcomingness of PACs and party organizations—qualities that are often in short supply. This has been especially true on the Republican side, which has generally been very reticent to share information about its ad buying choices, making it difficult to know exactly what's going on. (Democrats, at least, have been much more transparent.) Much better data is available, however, if you have access to it, and now, fortunately, we do.
And it’s important information. Despite the fragmentation of the modern media landscape, television and radio advertising remains a crucial part of political campaigns. This is particularly so for House races, where most candidates—even including many incumbents—have limited name recognition and need to get their message out to large groups of voters at once. Online ads are, of course, a growing part of the voter-contact arsenal, and mail remains a stalwart. But broadcast media, thanks to its expense, still tends to dominate most competitive races in terms of its share of overall spending.
And given their cost, TV and radio ad reservations in particular are a good indicator of where both political parties think their top opportunities are: If you're spending millions to support a candidate, odds are you're pretty sure she or he is someone worth backing—and that you've seen polling to prove it. Unfortunately, though, it can often be difficult to track down who's actually made reservations, and where, and for how much. They can also be a moving target, because an ad reservation, just like a dinner reservation, can be cancelled, changed, or re-booked for a later date.
But we have a great deal of confidence in our new chart, which includes reservations made on broadcast, cable, and satellite TV, as well as on radio. It shows the total amount reserved by each group from Labor Day through Election Day, meaning some of the money you'll see listed has already been spent. The numbers are mostly broken down according to the individual congressional districts they're aimed at, though such precision isn't always possible, as some reservations are made in media markets that overlap with more than one competitive contest. In those cases, you'll see line items for multiple districts, such as "NV-03/NV-04" (which are both covered by the Las Vegas market), instead of or in addition to lines that showcase those individual districts.
Some reservations are also made jointly between the party committees and the candidates they're helping. These are marked with a little triangle in the corner that says "Includes candidate funds" when you mouse over it. In such cases, the party committees are always responsible for the vast majority of each reservation; the candidate portions rarely if ever exceed five figures (at least so far).
And one other very important note: Not all ad dollars are created equal. In an expensive media market (like, say, New York City, the priciest in the country), a million bucks' worth of ads won't reach nearly as many viewers as that same sum would in a cheaper locale, such as Des Moines. For that reason, media buyers often rely on a metric called "gross ratings points," or GRPs, which measure advertising impact across markets in a uniform way. But dollar figures are easier to wrap your head around than abstract GRPs, and with common sense, you can distinguish the major buys from the minor ones.
So, what does all this data tell us? The first thing that jumps out is just how small both parties consider the House playing field to be: There are only 33 districts on the entire list, 26 of which are held by Republicans and just seven by Democrats. So even if Democrats were to run the table, they'd still fall short of the 30 seats they'd need to take back the House, meaning that either other races will have to come online or that Team Blue would need to pull off some out-of-the-blue upsets in order to put the chamber in play.
Democrats currently plan to spend about $84 million, which is quite a bit larger than the $73 million the GOP is expecting to laid out. Team Blue likewise has bookings in many more districts than Republicans. There's just one race the GOP has reserved time in that Democrats haven't, NY-03, a swingy open seat on Long Island. By contrast, seats on the Democratic target list that aren't on the GOP's include AZ-01, CO-03, FL-07, FL-13, IL-12, MI-07/MI-08, NJ-05, NY-23, and UT-04.
The biggest surprise on this list is IL-12, which is one of just two seats where we were previously unaware that reservations had been made. (The other was NJ-05, but HMP has long been advertising there, so its inclusion is expected.) That's a seat in downstate Illinois held by freshman GOP Rep. Mike Bost. Recruiting fell short of Democratic hopes, but recently, the DCCC added attorney C.J. Baricevic to their "Emerging Races" list, signaling they think there's at least some shot at a pickup here. And while HMP could always cancel its $325,000 reservation, the fact that they have booked any time at all is a vote of confidence.
Overall, there are 29 distinct media markets or districts on this list. (Sometimes we have specific information about individual seats that share media markets, and sometimes we do not.) Of these, Democrats are set to spend more in 16 of them, Republicans in 13. You can see these total spending differences in the column furthest to the right on our spreadsheet.
The biggest gap by far is in the Twin Cities, where Democrats stand ready to spend $12 million to defend MN-08 and pick up MN-02 and MN-03; Republicans have only committed $7 million to this trio of seats. A possible reason for the split: The GOP nominee in the 8th District, Stewart Mills, is personally worth over $200 million. The largest spread in the other direction is in the open FL-18, where Republicans are on track to shell out $1.8 million more than Democrats in an effort to grab this seat. Here, the Democratic nominee, Randy Perkins, is also wealthy and has been self-funding his bid.
We plan to update this chart weekly, and we'll take note of races that either get added or dropped, or reservations that shrink or grow. But there's much, much more to be gleaned right now, so dive right in.