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 ways in which an interest group can seek to influence the campaign debate.  A hands-on approach 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 collateral 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 mail, 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 passed the Bipartisan Campaign 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.  On January 21, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (+), allowing labor unions, corporations and incorporated membership organizations to engage in direct electioneering communications with general treasury funds. 

[Before Citizens United these groups could engage in a broad array of nonpartisan political education activities such as distributing voter guides, holding forums, etc.  They could also establish separate segregated funds or political action committees which were allowed to make partisan communications to their members]. 

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 v. Federal Election Commission (+) that contribution limits on SpeechNow, a Section 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 election 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 organizations (+), are allowed to engage in political advocacy, provided that such advocacy is not their "primary activity."  These include such groups as Americans for Prosperity, Crossroads GPS and the American Action Network (AAN).  What constitutes "primary activity is open to interpretation.  These groups do not have to disclose their donors, and their activities are viewed with great skepticism and concern by public advocacy groups.  

Finally, mention should be made of 501(c)(3)'s.  These include charities and foundations, and their tax-exempt status is predicated 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 Activities Compliance Initiative (1,2) to curtail prohibited political activity by tax exempt groups.  "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]).

Advertising Campaigns

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 inject specific issues into the debate without even mentioning the candidates. 

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 Iowa Ad 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).

Grassroots Campaigns

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 campaign, labor support is critical for the Democratic nominee.  Union members provide 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 such 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 campaign activities of a number of progressive groups thus avoiding duplication of efforts.  Also on the progressive side American Bridge, which is aligned with David 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 help counter 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 backing of an influential group can provide a significant boost to a nascent campaign.  An endorsement obviously carries more weight if it goes beyond the press release or announcement and involves resources.  During the general 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 campaign something to talk about and is a factor for members of the broader public to consider.

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. 

In addition, there is the "outside" scene at the conventions, which has reached extraordinary levels 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