Active at Every Stage
Organized interests and well-organized individuals endeavor to shape
election-year debate at every stage of the nominating process, from the
pre-campaign period to the transition.
Organizations advocating on subjects from abortion and the environment to 2nd Amendment rights and taxes mount efforts big and small to see that their points of view are represented during the long presidential campaign.
There are myriad
which an interest group can seek to influence the campaign
debate. A hands-on
may entail developing a network of local
volunteers and supporters and encouraging them to show up for candidate
events or do some phone banking, producing
items such as brochures and signs, issuing a pledge, or developing a
questionnaire for the campaigns to respond to. A group can
send out a team to follow a candidate's bus tour and present its
message or hire a plane to fly a banner over an event, or it may opt to
run a more traditional media campaign using some combination of direct
print, radio and/or television ads.
Different Groups Can Do Different Things
There are rules,
of course, as to what various groups can do. The foundation
starts with the Federal
Election Campaign Act of 1971. In 2002, Congress
Reform Act (BCRA). In the decade since then, outside money has
found many new channels to flow into the system. Recent court
decisions and a deadlocked, toothless Federal Election Commission have
left matters so that, according to Paul Ryan of The
Campaign Legal Center, "the 2010 general election became a wild west of
undisclosed political spending." In the 2012 campaign that wild
west approach expanded.
After the passage of BCRA, Section 527 organizations, named after a section of the tax code, emerged as a channel for soft money funds. 527's can engage in voter mobilization efforts, issue advocacy and other activity short of expressly advocating the election or defeat of a federal candidate. They are not subject to regulation by the FEC and there are no limits to how much they can raise. Perhaps the most famous of the 527s to date was the Swiftboat Veterans in the 2004 campaign. Swiftboat Veterans was found to have violated the limitations on campaign activity, thereby falling within the jurisdiction of the Federal Election Campaign Act, and were forced to pay substantial penalties—albeit two years after the campaign was over.
Developments in 2010 opened the floodgates.
21, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election
engage in direct electioneering
communications with general treasury funds.
groups could engage in a broad array
of nonpartisan political
such as distributing voter guides, holding forums, etc. They
could also establish separate segregated funds or
action committees which were allowed to make partisan communications to
Under Citizens United these organizations are still prohibited by federal election campaign laws from making direct contributions to federal elections campaigns. The FEC has issued some advisory opinions, but its rulemaking process bogged down (FEC, +).
Building on Citizens
United, D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on March 26, 2010 in
SpeechNow.org v. Federal Election
527 organization, were
unconstitutional. Thus was born the "super
PAC." Unlike an ordinary PAC which makes contributions to
candidates and party committees, super PACs are "independent
expenditure only committees." According to the Center for
Responsive Politics, these "can raise unlimited
sums from corporations, unions and other groups, as well as wealthy
individuals" which they then use to "advocate for the defeat or
of federal candidates." Again the FEC has issued some advisory
opinions, but been unable to come up with rules (FEC,
In addition to the super PACs, another type of entity emerged as a
key player in the 2010 and 2012 campaigns. 501(c)(4)'s, tax-exempt,
not-for-profit social welfare
engage in political
advocacy, provided that such advocacy is not their "primary
include such groups as Americans for Prosperity, Crossroads
GPS and the American Action
Network (AAN). What constitutes "primary activity is open to
not have to disclose their donors, and their activities are
viewed with great skepticism
and concern by
Finally, mention should be made of 501(c)(3)'s. These include
charities and foundations, and their tax-exempt
on their not engaging in partisan activities. ["501(c)(3)
organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly
participating in, or
intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition
to) any candidate for elective public office."].
Following the 2004 campaign, the
IRS created a Political
activity by tax exempt
"We wanted to stop improper activity during—not after—the election
cycle," stated IRS Commissioner Mark W. Everson in a February 2006
speech. However, after the 2012 campaign, in May 2013, it became
clear that there had been improper activity at the IRS itself since about 2010
in the form of targeting of tea party and other conservative groups
seeking tax exempt status (see IG audit
report, example [PDFs]).
Interest group ads
may be direct electioneering efforts ("vote for..."), they may be
messages supportive of or opposing a particular candidate ("tell
President Obama that...") or more rarely they may seek to
specific issues into the debate without even mentioning the
Voters in battleground states are saw a lot of super PAC and
501(c)(4) ads which
are in many cases difficult to distinguish from campaign ads.
It can be argued that during the Republican primary super PAC ads kept
the Santorum and Gingrich campaigns alive, prolonging the
process (see for example, The
Campaign), but that ultimately a flood of ads run by pro-Romney
groups torpedoed those candidacies.
In the general
election, various groups entered the fray, running ads for and
against Obama and Romney. Among the more active groups aligned
with Romney were Restore Our Future, American Crossroads and Americans
for Prosperity, while Priorities USA Action was aligned with Obama (see
for example, Ad Campaign
in Colorado and Virginia).
While a hands-on, grassroots campaign requires more effort to organize, it can have great effect. Candidates and their campaigns take notice when activists from a particular group keep showing up at their events. As with the primary ad campaigns, many of the grassroots campaigns focus on the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire. For example, the group Strong America Now has did extensive organizing during the Iowa caucus campaign. During the 2008 primary campaign, Ben Cohen's Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, Divided We Fail, ONE Vote '08 and the SEIU's health care effort were very visible in both Iowa and New Hampshire.
In the fall
support is critical for the Democratic nominee. Union members
the manpower for everything from turning out large crowds at rallies to
working phone banks (+). The
AFL-CIO's election programs place a
heavy emphasis on member to member contacts
as workplace flyers, home visits, and calls. While questions have
been raised about the AFL-CIO's focus and commitment to electoral
politics as opposed to organizing, there is no question that organized
labor as a whole will play a significant role in the campaign.
More broadly, a considerable progressive infrastructure provides a
foundation for Democratic campaigns. One key group on the
progressive side is America Votes. Formed in the 2004 cycle,
America Votes coordinates the
activities of a number of progressive groups thus avoiding duplication
of efforts. Also on the progressive side American Bridge, which
is aligned with
Brock's Media Matters
Action Network, had trackers following and videotaping the Republican
presidential candidates during the primary, and continued its work
in the general election. The Analyst Institute, "a clearinghouse
for evidence-based best practices in progressive voter contact," also
attracted a bit of notice. Democracy Alliance, formed
in 2005, "was created to build progressive infrastructure that could
the well-funded and sophisticated conservative apparatus..."
There appears to be less of this type of infrastructure on the
conservative side, although groups such as The Leadership Institute and
GOPAC work on training activists and leaders.
Endorsements: Varying Impact
During the primaries
of an influential group can provide a significant boost to a nascent
An endorsement obviously carries more weight if it goes beyond the
release or announcement and involves resources. During the
election, an organization's endorsement
of a presidential candidate is probably not going to affect the voting
decisions of the group's individual members, but it does give the
something to talk about and is a factor for members of the broader
Conventions: A Time to Focus
The national nominating conventions, with thousands of media representatives on hand, prompt many groups to mobilize and try to get out their messages. Before the conventions actually start, interest groups weigh in on the party platforms. At the conventions, a fair number of delegates are active members of one group or another, and they take the opportunity to network in various caucuses and meetings. Groups also organize receptions or forums or they may set up hospitality suites.
there is the
"outside" scene at the conventions, which has reached extraordinary
in recent years. Typically there have been fenced off
demonstration areas set aside at
the edge of the convention sites where representatives from groups with
opposing views can make their points. However, these are little
more than side shows, and it is the street demonstrations that attract
most of the attention.
2012: Tampa | Charlotte