Common Core advocates dominate early messaging in Iowa

Fmr Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue, in green tie, addressing camera
Image: Collaborative for Student Success Youtube Channel

Twenty-plus candidates; $5,000 and up fundraisers; super PACs that raise multimillion-dollar campaign war chests in just days. All the early indicators point to an incredibly expensive 2016 presidential campaign cycle as White House hopefuls — and the millionaire donors backing them — prepare for the upcoming deluge of campaign ads.

In Iowa, however, site of the nation’s first presidential caucus, it’s neither a candidate nor a super PAC controlling the bulk of the early messaging. In that state, a nonprofit pushing for the Common Core educational standards has outpaced all other political spenders so far in 2015.

The Collaborative for Student Success (CFSS), based in Washington, D.C., and backed by major foundations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (which has been one of the most vocal proponents of Common Core standards nationwide) has been touting the nationwide standards early and often in the Hawkeye State. Although a spokesperson from CFSS would not confirm any total spending figure, a Sunlight review of ad contracts finds the group has already spent over $764,000 on just under 1,500 ads in the state.

That investment trumps the earliest ad buys from super super PACs focused on presidential politics in that state. American Future Project, a super PAC created by supporters of Gov. Bobby Jindal, R-La., has spent $218,275 locking down air time, while the Opportunity and Freedom PAC, which supports former Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s presidential foray, has devoted a little more than $126,000 to ads so far, publicly available contracts show.

Most super PAC ads will come several months from now, and candidates will likely wait even longer to begin their ad campaigns in earnest.

For example, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, the first candidate to officially announce his 2016 campaign, has spent just over $2,000 on air time in that state through his campaign committee.

Though CFSS doesn’t name any presidential candidates in its ads, the group appears to be targeting much of its messaging at conservative voters, who will have a wide field to choose from in the primaries. The nonprofit may face an uphill battle. The national education standards have become a political lightning rod for many conservatives. Of the declared and expected Republican candidates for the White House, former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida stands out as the only potential candidate to stand by the Common Core.

Blair Mann, a spokesperson for CFSS, told Sunlight in an email that the national measure had seen “grossly misleading labels attached to it.”

It’s part of the reason the group has invested so heavily, even though there are more than eight months before the Iowa caucuses. According to Mann:

It’s important that the public have the facts and that public officials be held accountable when they employ wildly inaccurate and deliberately misleading descriptions of the standards. We think it’s important — and far more effective — to be part of the conversation early, rather than trying to correct the record after the issue has been distorted and misrepresented.

The group is making a concerted effort to market the standards to skeptical conservative voters in the state. One ad includes testimony from several former Republican governors.

“When No Child Left Behind passed in the early 2000’s a lot of governors began to wonder if this was an inappropriate federal intrusion into what has traditionally been a state and local responsibility. So the idea of Common Core was to push back, was to have state-initiated standards” said Jim Douglas, former governor of Vermont.

“The very fact that many people think it’s a federal effort to take over education is absolutely not true.” Sonny Perdue of Georgia tells viewers.

You can see all of the ad buys in Iowa, and the rest of the country, using Sunlight’s Political Ad Sleuth tool.