By Will Evans and Peter Overby(The Secret Money blog is a joint project of the Center for Investigative Reporting and National Public Radio.)

The game is over. Some won, some lost, and a lot of people laid down their money.

Scores of independent groups went into hyperdrive for this election, reaching millions of people with some of the most vicious attack ads of the year. We saw new groups pop up out of nowhere; we saw old groups go to unprecedented lengths to help their candidates of choice; and we saw organized labor, corporate America and the partisan wealthy flood them all with money. For the last few months, we’ve tracked their moves at the Secret Money Project. We hope our reporting helped illuminate the sometimes-opaque forces of influence, and serves as a resource in the future.

While independent groups mostly stayed a sidenote during the campaigns — particularly the heavily financed presidential contest — they did leave their marks.

  • 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 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.
  • The biggest player among these groups was the Service Employees International Union, and sometimes it seemed to reach everywhere in the liberal establishment. And long before the election, SEIU had already budgeted $10 million to hold its favored candidates accountable to the union’s agenda in 2009.

    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, 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.” (The Secret Money blog is a joint project of the Center for Investigative Reporting and National Public Radio.)

    An interest group’s goal is not only to help a candidate win, but also to ingratiate itself with the politician or party, says Steve Weissman, of the Campaign Finance Institute. Even if labor unions and such groups as and Planned Parenthood didn’t necessarily tip the election to Senator Obama, they dedicated a vast amount of money and resources to his cause, and now can hope that he feels indebted to them.

    Let’s take a look at who racked up some chits. (Click on the links to watch the groups’ ads and read about their funding and leadership.)

    Liberal Groups
    2. UNITED AUTO WORKERS = $4,860,571
    3. MOVEON.ORG = $4,185,821
    4. AFSCME = $2,312,723
    6. ADVANCING WISCONSIN = $2,094,687
    8. PROGRESSIVE FUTURE = $1,496,323
    9. SIERRA CLUB = $1,213,068
    10. HEALTH CARE FOR AMERICA NOW = $1,132,085
    11. NARAL PRO-CHOICE AMERICA = $1,117,991

    Conservative Groups
    3. VETS FOR FREEDOM = $4,596,149
    4. NATIONAL RIGHT TO LIFE = $4,504,422
    5. LET FREEDOM RING = $3,257,939
    6. AMERICAN ISSUES PROJECT = $2,878,873
    8. FOCUS ON THE FAMILY ACTION = $1,332,862
    9. RIGHTCHANGE.COM = $1,318,691
    12. NATIONAL CAMPAIGN FUND = $1,167,810

    *The total for the Committee for Truth in Politics is an estimate by the Campaign Media Analysis Group. The group argues in a pending lawsuit that it doesn’t have to report its expenditures.

    The biggest spenders on the left were obviously labor unions. George Soros — who made himself a political lightning rod by bankrolling anti-Bush groups in 2004 — in this cycle gave $3.5 million to Fund for America, $1 million to America Votes, about half a million to other liberal groups, and that’s all that we know of. Hollywood producer Steve Bing also spent $2.5 million on the Fund for America, and about a million more on other pro-Democratic groups.

    On the right, pharmaceutical executive Fred Eshelman apparently outspent Soros, dumping $5.5 million into his anti-Obama 527, Other conservative megadonors include Texas businessman Harold Simmons, who gave $2.9 million to American Issues Project, and retired physician John Templeton Jr., who gave at least $2.7 million to Let Freedom Ring.

    In contrast, a few conservative political action committees were able to raise remarkable sums via strictly regulated small donations. The National Republican Trust, for example, reported spending an incredible $6.6 million on the election, despite being founded in September.

    Now, shifting to congressional races …

    We set out to cover Senate races, figuring that several contests could be pivotal to the chamber’s makeup next year, while the House was clearly destined to become more Democratic. Outside groups saw it that way too, and piled into Senate contests as the election drew near. Weissman says independent groups focused more on congressional races than in 2004. In some of the closest contests, outside groups with huge warchests had the potential to make a significant difference, he says.

    And speaking of collecting chits, the pharmaceutical industry, under the guise of America’s Agenda: Health Care for Kids, went so far as to spend millions on incumbents of both parties — many of them in completely safe seats. Surely a good way to make friends in Congress.

    A popular strategy on the left was funneling union money through independent 527s to produce attack ads. Unions produced their own ads, but they also provided almost all the funding for Patriot Majority to blitz key Senate races. Union money flowed to Citizens for Strength and Security, Majority Action, Campaign Money Watch — all of them 527s that report their contributions.

    On the right, this election cycle saw the creation of several new 501(c)(4) nonprofits, which don’t have to disclose their donors, focusing on congressional races. High-powered examples include the Employee Freedom Action Committee and American Future Fund, as well as Coloradans for Economic Growth and American Energy Alliance. Freedom’s Watch also fits the bill, though we know it’s bankrolled by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. Of course, Americans for Job Security has been doing this for years, and appears to be unfazed by a complaint to the Internal Revenue Service that it’s violating its tax status.

    Weissman, in a recent report on independent groups, points to the increasing popularity of 501(c)(4) advocacy groups and 501(c)(6) trade associations on the right and the left as a major trend of this election season.

    “The impact,” he tells us, “is that there’s more ads out there that you don’t quite know who’s behind them.”

    That’s why we started the Secret Money Project, to help shed some light on the groups trying to influence your vote. We hope it’s proved enlightening.


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