Finding out who pays for political ads in American politics can be tricky. Candidates and committees who purchase political ads on television and in print are required to disclose their identities. But often times those committees have vague names such as Americans for Prosperity or Americans for a Better Future.
Understanding who contributes money to those committees so they can buy political ads is an important function of democracy because the ads play such a large role in elections. Are they conservative or liberal in political philosophy? Do they have a special interest or issue they are trying to influence? It is sometimes difficult to discern what a committee's motives are just by watching or reading political ads.
Who Pays for Political Ads
Generally speaking, there are several types of groups that pay for political advertising.
They are individual candidate election campaigns such as those for President Barack Obama or 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney; political parties such as the Democratic National Committee and Republican National Committee; and political action committees or super PACs funded by industries and special interests.
Some of the largest special interests in American politics are abortion and gun-control opponents, energy companies and senior citizens.
How to Tell Who Pays for Political Ads
It is easy to tell when an individual political candidate or political party buys airtime for ads. They will disclose their identities, often at the end of the ad. Typically, the wording is "This ad was paid for by the committee to re-elect Barack Obama" or "I am Mitt Romney and I approved this message."
Political action committees and super PACs are required to do the same, but they are not required to provide a list of major contributors or identify their special interests on the air. Such information is available only through the committees' own websites or through Federal Election Commission records.
Those records, called campaign finance reports, include details about how much a political candidate or political party is spending on political ads.
Political action committees and super PACs are required by law to list their contributors in disclosures filed regularly in Washington, D.C. Such information can shed light on whether those super PACs are conservative or liberal in nature. But some super PACs exploit a loophole in reporting laws not addressed in the legal case that led to their creation, Citizens United v. the FEC.
Super PACs are permitted to accept contributions from nonprofit groups classified as 501[c] or social welfare organizations under the Internal Revenue Service tax code. The problem is that under that tax code, 501[c] groups are not required to disclose their own contributors. That means they can make contributions to super PACs in the name of the social welfare entity without having to disclose where they themselves got the money.
Attempts to close that loophole in Congress have failed.
The Federal Communications Commission requires television stations that get paid to broadcast political ads to keep a record of who bought airtime. Those records are required to be made available for inspection to the public at the stations.
The contracts show the which candidates, political committees or special interests are buying political ads, the length and target audience, how much they paid, and when the ads aired.
Beginning in August 2012, the FCC also required television stations to post online all contracts with candidates, super PACs and other committees buying airtime for political ads. Those contracts are available at https://stations.fcc.gov.