How to Tell Who’s Behind Political Messages Flooding Screens in Colorado Ahead of the 2020 Election

The political ads appearing on TV and social media and arriving in mailboxes are designed to influence voters, but the sender can be difficult to discern
  • COLab is an independent, nonprofit, statewide journalism coalition, media resource hub, and ideas lab. We serve all Coloradans by strengthening high-quality local journalism, supporting civic engagement, and ensuring public accountability.

  • Sandra Fish is a data journalist who’s covered campaign finance in Colorado for 20 years. She also teaches students at University of Colorado Boulder, and has written about politics for national outlets. In 2020 Fish, as she is known, will provide training and technical support for Colorado newsrooms participating in First Draft News’ mis-/dis-information training and campaign finance data analysis and reporting.

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The television commercials are airing during Denver Broncos games. The mailers are filling the postal box. The texts are popping up on the phone.

When they arrive, a series of questions come to mind: Who’s paying for these political messages? Are they truthful? What do the folks behind them want?

The 2020 election has driven nearly $89 million in spending on TV ads in Colorado this year, nearly three-quarters on the U.S. Senate contest between Republican incumbent Cory Gardner and Democratic former Gov. John Hickenlooper. And 56% of that Senate money comes from outside groups hoping to influence voters, a new analysis from The Colorado Sun shows.

In addition, nearly $29 million worth of Facebook ads have targeted the state since the beginning of the year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks the spending. Add at least another $15 million in reported outside spending on mailers, texting, canvassing and more at the state and federal level. 

The huge sums show that the candidates running for office often aren’t the main force behind the messages that voters receive.

With the launch of The Colorado Sun’s Colorado campaign money tracker, we want to help you learn who’s delivering the messages you’re seeing, where the money is coming from and why they want to influence you.

“Knowing where the money is coming from provides the transparency that can make a sponsor accountable for the messages that they are sending,” said Travis Ridout in an email. He’s a Washington state political scientist and co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project that tracks TV and digital advertising. “And knowing that there is transparency can encourage ad sponsors to behave better, e.g., not spreading lies about a candidate.”

There are many ways to consider the money being spent on the big contests (and the smaller ones too). 

Here’s a look at some of what you can learn in our Colorado campaign money tracker.

Not all TV ads are the same. Look for these keys to find the source of the messages.

TV continues to be a popular venue for campaign commercials. But not all are the same — and if you look for certain features, you’ll get a sense of where the message is coming from.

An ad from a candidate — on TV and radio — must feature the candidate saying their name and that they approve the message under federal law. If you don’t hear from the candidate, the ad didn’t come from them.

If it’s an ad from an outside political group, it falls into one of three categories. 

  • Super PACs: Most of the outside spending comes from super PACs that can accept unlimited contributions and spend unlimited sums as long as they don’t coordinate with candidates. The big super PAC players in Colorado’s U.S. Senate contest are the Senate Majority Project for Democrats and Senate Leadership Fund for Republicans.
  • Political parties: The two major political parties are big players and the ads come from their campaign arms. For instance, at the U.S. Senate level, the party committees are the National Republican Senatorial Campaign, or NRSC, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, or DSCC. For U.S. House candidates, the parties have similarly named committees. These groups may collaborate with candidates under many circumstances.
  • Nonprofits: One different type of political ad asks viewers to to take some action, and it stops short of using the language “vote for or against” a particular candidate. These are commercials aired by political nonprofit organizations that don’t have to disclose their donors.

In Colorado, political nonprofits spent big money in the run up to the November election. For example, this recent ad from Rocky Mountain Values, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, that concludes by telling viewers to call Gardner and tell him “don’t vote to confirm Amy Coney Barrett before inauguration.” It features a phone number on the screen for Gardner’s Senate office in Washington.

Rocky Mountain Values aired $2.3 million worth of similar ads from October 2019 through January. Because it never directly suggests voting for or against Gardner, the group doesn’t have to disclose who gave them money to put the ad on TV. The nonprofit does disclose its member groups, however, which are traditional Democratic supporters including unions, Planned Parenthood and environmental groups.

The spending on the latest ads about the Supreme Court, at least $1.2 million, will have to be disclosed to the Federal Elections Commission because it comes within 60 days of the Nov. 3 election. Donors still won’t have to be disclosed because the group didn’t suggest voting for or against Gardner.

Nearly $11.5 million in TV ads from Rocky Mountain Values and six other nonprofits aligned with Democrats or Republicans aired in 2020 that mentioned either Gardner or Hickenlooper, according to The Sun’s analysis of TV ad contracts filed with the Federal Communications Commission. 

The political flyers in your mailbox offer clues on the source

When it comes to political flyers, the big glossy pages make plenty of claims, but the sender is often tough to find in the fine print.

To get a sense of the sender, take a close look at the return address on the mailers. Most typically come from political parties or super PACs, organizations that do not collaborate with the candidates but obviously have a big stake in the race.

The mailers typically focus on down-ballot races — the ones with smaller political boundaries like state legislative contests where it’s more effective to target voters by mail than a big TV blast. In competitive legislative contests, outside organizations with ties to interests and organizations that lobby the Colorado General Assembly will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on mailers, many of them negative. By comparison, the candidates more often send positive mailers, letting the outside organizations do the dirty work.

These groups often use generic-sounding names that make it hard to discern their special interest or political allegiances. Here are a few of the most prominent ones that you may receive political mail from:

  • Leading Colorado Forward supports Democratic state Senate candidates and opposes Republicans
  • Senate Majority Fund supports Republican Senate candidates and opposes Democrats.
  • Unite for Colorado Action is supporting Republican state Senate candidates and opposes Democrats. The group is entirely funded by the nonprofit Unite for Colorado, which does not disclose its donors.
  • Better Colorado Alliance supports Democratic House candidates and opposes Republicans.
  • Take Back Colorado, with $455,000 in funding from the related Values First Colorado, supports GOP House candidates.

Digital ads are little regulated and reporting on spending is spotty

A little money goes a long way when it comes to Facebook advertising and other social media platforms. Presidential and Senate campaigns are the big spenders in Colorado, and often the ads they are posting to Facebook are related to fundraising.

According to New York University’s Ad Observatory, President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden are even at $1.2 million each when it comes to Facebook advertising in Colorado through Wednesday. And Hickenlooper outpaces Gardner in spending $1.3 million to $265,000. A search in Facebook’s ad library tool indicates that many of the ads from Gardner and Hickenlooper are seeking campaign donations, often small-dollar contributions from activists.

The best way to learn more about a Facebook ad that shows up on your page is to click the information icon on the ad to learn why you’re being targeted and get more information about the ads the page is running. Keep in mind that total spending on Facebook ad library pages includes ads aimed at all sorts of demographics and states.

For instance, this ad from Gardner’s campaign is primarily aimed at raising money from people in Texas, California and Florida, saying: “We need to stand up for Cory and help protect the Republican Senate Majority!” This ad from Hickenlooper’s campaign targets the same three states and others. “It’s going to take a whole lot of grassroots donations to overcome the war chest of special interest money that’s pouring into Colorado to defeat us,” the ad says.

Many of the other Facebook ads targeting Coloradans overlap with mailers and TV ads from the same groups. But plenty of others are from groups spending smaller amounts of money, often less than $100,000. Even at the lower amounts, the ad can still reach a significant audience because Facebook allows the messages to be targeted at narrow demographic groups.

“Digital advertising is growing rapidly this cycle, probably above a quarter of campaign ad spending this election cycle according to estimates,” Ridout said. “Campaigns use digital ads for ‘acquisition’ of people’s contact information, for mobilization and for fundraising, too. Sometimes the digital ads raise money that is used to run TV ads.”

Reports on outside spending clarify positions, but not effectiveness

At both the state and federal level, political groups must report the information about their advertising, including the candidate featured in their messages, how much was spent and their position on the race.

In reports filed through Sunday, nearly $16 million is being spent to oppose Hickenlooper compared with $9.8 million spent to oppose Gardner. Considerably less is being spent to support the two candidates.

State legislative contests are also drawing plenty of outside cash. A state Senate contest in Adams County topped $2.2 million. Two others neared $1.5 million. And outside cash in two state House districts is nearing $750,000 each based on reports filed through Monday morning. 

Those federal and state reports give some idea about how the money was spent: On TV ads, mailers, digital ads, canvassing or other campaign aspects.

How effective the communications are is another question. Ridout said it’s easy to swipe past or ignore digital ads, while TV ad audiences are more captive when you’re watching something live.

Still, being able to track the money and groups backing a candidate is important. “Knowing who is sponsoring an ad also gives voters information about who is supporting and opposing a candidate,” Ridout said, “which can be valuable in deciding whether a candidate would advance one’s interests.”

This story is a part of #FollowtheMoneyCO, a project of the Colorado News Collaborative (COLab), edited by The Colorado Sun with support from the Colorado Media Project.