May 19, 2013
Ad-ing It All Up
Posted on Nov 17, 2008
By Will Evans and Peter Overby
The game is over. Some won, some lost, and a lot of people laid down their money.
American Issues Project produced an ad in August that linked Sen. Barack Obama to one-time anti-war militant Bill Ayers. It kept Ayers in the mix as a campaign issue at a time when Sen. John McCain’s organization wasn’t ready to take that step.
At virtually the same time, the liberal Brave New Films made a viral video raising questions about McCain’s multiple homes. The video led a print reporter to ask McCain about the real estate, and the candidate flubbed the answer, creating a new campaign issue.
The Clarion Fund inundated the presidential swing states with a DVD called “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West.” It was a classic example of the murky space between campaigning and issue advocacy that many of these groups occupy. NPR listeners and npr.org readers told us about the DVD, and we give them our profuse thanks. All of them all told us the video seemed meant to promote McCain. As for the Clarion Fund, it hired a new public relations firm after we aired our broadcast story. But it never clarified its financing or activities—as, indeed, it had no need to; the fund is a 501(c)(3) charity with minimal disclosure requirements. People speaking for the fund insisted there was no partisan agenda, and said they had distributed 28 million copies of the DVD in key election states only to attract the attention of reporters covering the race.
But figuring out what impact the groups actually had on the campaigns is a tricky proposition. For one thing, the mish-mash of tax rules, campaign finance laws and Supreme Court decisions made it impossible to know precisely how much money they spent. We gave it a good try here, by adding together all the money that groups reported spending on election-related communications since July:
Conservative Groups: $40.9 million
Liberal Groups: $53.1 million
Conservative Groups: $40.4 million
Liberal Groups: $29.6 million
This is a vast undercount, since many groups have to report only election ads that show up on TV or radio or that explicitly say to vote for or against a candidate.We recorded $4.2 million for MoveOn.org, for example, while the group engaged in plenty of other activities and said in a press release that it spent more than $30 million overall.
Chalk it up to a system that, for better or worse, doesn’t require vast amounts of election-related activity to be reported. Money, in any case, doesn’t necessarily equal impact. Many organizations spent big on mobilizing their members and getting out the vote, and that counts for something.
But what about those attack ads? All ads and groups are measured nowadays against the standard of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the 2004 group that wounded Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry’s aspirations. Nobody achieved Swift Boat status this year, though some tried hard, on the left (Brave New PAC) and right (National Republican Trust and American Issues Project).
Perhaps the media, which hyped the Swift Boat group in 2004, learned their lesson and avoided giving any attack too much credit, theorizes John Geer, an expert on negative advertising at Vanderbilt University. Tom Matzzie, a Democratic strategist, has his own diagnosis: that the Internet has made it too easy to fact-check dishonest ads. Conservative operative Chris LaCivita, who went from Swift Boat Veterans in 2004 to American Issues Project this year, says it was just money. He says AIP simply couldn’t raise enough from big donors after Wall Street crashed.
And maybe attack groups never got a direct shot at a candidate’s core message. The Swift Boat ads took aim at Kerry’s war record, which he was running on. But this year, when the economy became the main issue for voters, attacks on Senator Obama’s nefarious “associations” or McCain’s health seemed less relevant.
Plus, Senator Obama buried McCain and his allies with the biggest pot of money ever spent on an election. “With Obama’s fundraising advantage, all the 527s kinda got crowded out,” Geer says. “We’re going to go to a system where the next presidential candidates are both going to have to raise so much money ... that all of the sudden these people who are funding these 527s have to think about whether it’s worth putting their money down.”
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