Understanding Elections and the Language that Defines Them


Each election cycle spawns new terms that the public and press have to make sense of, like soft money, express advocacy, swift boating or issue advertising. The current cycle is no different—we’ve seen Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United and Speech Now that are regularly cited and the advent of Super PACs, also known as independent expenditure committees.

The Reporting Group has been doing extensive work to help you track all the new wrinkles unleashed by the Supreme Court in the 2010 election cycle, including Super PACs and the ways they spend their money. We’ve created a tool that tracks both independent expenditures and electioneering communications (a word on what they are in a moment). We created Sunlight CAM—or campaign ad monitor—to let you report on ads you see. And we’re following the unlimited money like never before—including visualizing who’s spending what where and on which races:

But back to the terminology. An electioneering communication, according the Federal Election Commission, is any broadcast, cable or satellite communication that refers to a specific federal candidate and is publicly broadcast shortly before an election to an audience the candidate is relevant to, such as a congressional district for a person campaigning for a seat in House or a state for someone running for Senate. Electioneering communications are usually ads that raise a candidate in the context of an issue, and can be paid for by a non-profit with 501(c)4 status, such as Crossroads GPS, a nonprofit with 501(c)6 status, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a section 527 organization like Moveon.org or American Crossroads. Groups that run electioneering communications have to file a disclosure with the Federal Election Commission if the ad runs thirty days prior to a primary election or 60 days prior to the general election.

Electioneering communications can be pretty explicitly positive or negative about a candidate (think of the Swift Boat ads in the 2004 presidential race) without explicitly saying they support or oppose the candidate. Here is an example of an electioneering communication from Crossroads GPS:

The language in the video doesn’t say “don’t vote for Carnahan,” but it does criticize her stance on healthcare reform. While it’s fairly clear that the ad argues that Carnahan is out of step with her constituents, all it asks viewers to do is to call a number, presumably to let Carnahan know how they feel.

We know for certain that a group connected to Crossroads GPS, American Crossroads, opposes Carnahan based on another kind of disclosure filed with the Federal Election Commission, this one for independent expenditures. These are ads or other forms of communications or support—phone banks, get out the vote operations, staff time, and so on—to elect or defeat a candidate in a federal election. Independent expenditure disclosures tell us explicitly whether a group opposes or supports a candidate. Independent expenditures can be similar to electioneering communications—they are often times TV ads but can also take the form of phone calls soliciting votes and newspaper ads, etc. The main difference between the two as defined by the FEC is express advocacy— to say “Vote for Joe”, or “Don’t Vote for Joe.” Independent expenditures can expressly advocate while electioneering communications cannot.

When it comes to making independent expenditures, they have to be, well, independent. This means they can’t be coordinated with any campaign or candidate, but based on new rules established post Citizens United, they have the luxury of being financed by unlimited amounts of money. For instance, the group Florida is Not For Sale that opposed Jeff Greene’s run for the Senate in Florida was able to receive a $100,000 contribution from SEIU COPE, a labor union PAC—something that wasn’t possible a year ago.

Here’s an ad the group ran opposing Jeff Greene:

Florida is Not For sale is an independent expenditure-only committee. Those committees have recently been dubbed Super PACs because of their ability to raise unlimited funds. They are the only groups registered with the FEC that can receive unlimited contributions from individuals, corporations or labor unions and spend unlimited amounts as long as they operate, once again, independently of campaigns or candidates. Currently, 38 so-called Super Pacs have registered with FEC, but only a small number have begun spending money. To see our database, click here.