In total, an estimated $7.77 was spent per possible voter — enough for coffee and half a dozen donuts, with change to spare, at the famed Allie’s Donuts in North Kingstown, Rhode Island.
That’s too many donuts for one person to eat, said shop owner Anne Drescher, and too much money spent on ads that could instead fund scholarships or fix roads.
“It’s unnecessary for it to be so over the top,” Drescher said. “If there’s any way they can take some of that money and invest it in the state, that would be the best PR plug to win any office.”
Pennsylvania, at $3.99 spent per eligible voter, was second, followed by Maryland ($3.48), Nebraska ($3.12) and Illinois ($2.94). Spending in all five states is significantly higher than what it was at this point in 2010, fueled largely by contested governors’ races.
Spending is down in 24 of 44 states where political advertisements have aired so far this cycle. And spending on gubernatorial contests — the biggest ticket race at the state level — is 60 percent of what it was at this point in 2010.
Four years ago, there were fewer incumbent governors, meaning there were more competitive races and thus a lot more spending on ads. Twenty-nine sitting governors are seeking re-election in 2014 compared to 13 in 2010.
At the same point in 2010, for example, the open gubernatorial contest in California alone had accounted for more than $100 million in estimated advertising spending. This cycle, with favored Democrat Jerry Brown seeking re-election, less than $2 million has been spent.
“The playing field is very different this year,” said Tyler Johnson, a political science professor at the University of Oklahoma. “You have 20-plus governors running for re-election, so you’re immediately sort of eliminating in most of those races one competitive primary.”
The lack of a compelling top-of-the-ticket race in so many states appears to have led to a lower voter turnout. At least 28 states showed lower primary turnout rates than in 2010, according to numbers from state election officials across the country.
Top ticket races dominate the airwaves
But even at diminished levels, the 36 governors’ races across the country have fueled more than $208 million, or nearly three-quarters of all the estimated state-level advertising spending this cycle.
The top five most expensive races overall have been gubernatorial races, with Pennsylvania ($35.5 million), Florida ($31.8 million) and Illinois ($26 million) leading the pack. Andrew Cuomo’s bid to remain the Democratic governor of New York put the Empire State fourth, with $13.2 million in spending, while blue-leaning Maryland came in at fifth ($12.1 million) thanks to a heated Democratic primary for the open seat being vacated by Gov. Martin O’Malley due to term limits.
Florida has the second-most expensive governor’s race in the country despite the fact that incumbent Republican Gov. Rick Scott and the Democratic nominee, former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, faced minimal competition in the Aug. 26 primaries.
Heavy spending there by the parties and other non-candidate groups — one closely associated with Scott — was geared toward the November general election from the beginning.
Non-candidate groups have spent more on that contest than any other state race nationwide. Unlike in other states, Florida’s campaign finance laws allow candidates to work closely with seemingly outside groups, rendering candidates’ own campaigns less relevant.
Illinois’ gubernatorial contest, like the one in Pennsylvania, features a wealthy businessman who has spent millions to fund a challenge against the unpopular incumbent — in this case a Democrat, Gov. Pat Quinn.
Illinois venture capitalist Bruce Rauner narrowly secured the GOP nomination after spending 40 times more on television ads than his closest opponent, state Sen. Kirk Dillard, in the state’s March 18 Republican primary.
Winning the television ad war is no guarantee of victory at the ballot, however.
In Texas, the heated primary for lieutenant governor helped make that seat the sixth-most expensive race overall through Sept. 8 at $11.9 million, eclipsing even the state’s own gubernatorial race. Incumbent Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst spent nearly half of that in the four-way race, with 70 percent more spots airing than his closest challenger, state Sen. Dan Patrick. Yet Dewhurst still lost in the primary runoff for the state’s No. 2 office.