Want to know how to follow the money in an age of Super PACs, 501(c)s and unlimited contributions? Tomorrow at 2 p.m., the Poynter Institute and the Sunlight Foundation are offering a Specialized Reporting Webinar to teach you to do just that, sponsored by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation. As a bit of a preview, here are a few thoughts on what we’ve seen so far, and what to look for in 2012:
1) Contributions are only half the story. We know the names of big donors, like Sheldon Adelson, Harold Simmons and Jeffrey Katzenberg. We need to pay more attention to what they want in return. Paul Begala, the Democratic consultant recently told NPR, “Jeffrey Katzenberg is our largest donor. He gave us $2 million. He’s not going to sell any more tickets to Kung Fu Panda 2 if Obama gets a second term. He’s just doing it because he believes in his country.” In fact, Vice President Joe Biden personally negotiated a bigger share of the box office for U.S. studios from Chinese theaters–and consulted with Katzenberg throughout the negotiations. Katzenberg may not sell more tickets, but thanks to Biden he’ll make more money on those that he does sell. You have to follow more than the money going to the politicians.
2) Hard money is still king. As of this writing, our super PAC tracker shows that super PACs collectively have raised $212 million in the 2012 election cycle (to find the latest number you can download the data here). That’s obviously a lot of money, but consider that, according to the Federal Election Commission, regular political action committees–the Clark Kent-ish squares which accept contributions of no more than $5,000 a year from individuals–have raised $839 million, according to the FEC. That’s almost four times as much. And politicians and parties aren’t faring too badly either: House campaigns have raised $606 million while Senate campaigns have raised $341 million (latest numbers are here). Presidential campaigns have reported raising $459 million, while the six political party committees, from the Democratic National Committee to the National Republican Congressional Committee, have raised $599 million. That’s a combined total (candidates for office and parties) of $2 billion, nearly ten times what super PACs have raised. Keep your eyes on the hard money.
President Barack Obama has attended more than 160 fundraisers since entering office, and Mitt Romney has begun raising as much money, sometimes more, than Obama. Sure, super PACs are raising a lot of money and have had a huge impact–the candidacies of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum wouldn’t have gotten nearly as far as they did without them. But don’t ignore the hard money.
3) Lots of money is undisclosed–but necessarily the money you’re thinking of. George Soros and the Koch Brothers have more than support for drug legalization in common. They’re pursuing the same strategy–pumping money into grassroots, get-out-the-vote activities, as are other big donors. In Wisconsin’s recall election, 2.5 million Badger staters went to the polls to cast votes for Gov. Scott Walker or his opponents; in 2010, in the regularly scheduled election, 2.1 million turned out. The increase is in part the result of a huge amount of get out the vote spending by both sides (my colleague Kathy Kiely wrote about an example here). There’s a tremendous amount of under-the-radar grassroots organizing going on, and a huge amount of this activity occurs outside party channels and outside of disclosure channels. Labor unions, of course, did this for years. Now informal networks of tea party activists and nonprofits like Americans for Prosperity are in the ballgame. And what this allows for is…
4) The most important messaging won’t be broadcast. Yes, there will be way too many television, cable and radio commercials loaded with lies, damned lies and statistics, and paid for by (see number 2 above) groups that do not disclose their donors, but the most important messages might be aired as part of those get out the vote operations. In 2004, the campaign of George W. Bush pioneered data mining techniques which, as the Washington Post reported, they used to crunch consumer and other data, developing 32 separate voter profiles, and targeting messages to each type of voter. The campaign also built an army of volunteers to deliver some of those messages in person. Result: they turned out an additional 10 million voters, and Bush was reelected.
We already know that the Obama campaign has its data mining operation up and running, and will try to reprise or surpass its huge 2008 volunteer effort. The Romney campaign has is focusing on digital persuasion–Zac Moffatt, the campaign’s digital director, explains how they’re reaching the millions of adults that have tuned out broadcast TV at the Personal Democracy Forum. Romney’s campaign has paid Moffatt’s company, Targeted Victory, more than $5 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Of course super PACs and big donors have had and will have a huge impact, as will the onslaught of ads by shadowy groups that don’t disclose their donors, but those staid and steady Washington interests, the political action committees, are funneling many millions more into the coffers of congressional campaigns. Reports on the fundraisers with the likes of Anna Wintour or Donald Trump should serve to remind how critical raising hard money is to candidates. And while we no doubt will be inundated with ads from nonprofits that don’t disclose their donors, both campaigns and nonprofit groups will have messaging operations that won’t be broadcast, but will be heard.
Please join us for the Webinar tomorrow at 2 p.m. — register here!