The game is over. Some won, some lost, and a lot of people laid down their money.
Scores of independent groups went into hyperdrive for this election, reaching millions of people with some of the most vicious attack ads of the year. We saw new groups pop up out of nowhere; we saw old groups go to unprecedented lengths to help their candidates of choice; and we saw organized labor, corporate America and the partisan wealthy flood them all with money. For the last few months, we've tracked their moves at the Secret Money Project. We hope our reporting helped illuminate the sometimes-opaque forces of influence, and serves as a resource in the future.
While independent groups mostly stayed a sidenote during the campaigns — particularly the heavily financed presidential contest — they did leave their marks.
- American Issues Project produced an ad in August that linked Senator Obama to one-time anti-war militant Bill Ayers. It kept Ayers in the mix as a campaign issue at a time when Sen. John McCain's organization wasn't ready to take that step.
- At virtually the same time, the liberal Brave New Films made a viral video raising questions about McCain's multiple homes. The video led a print reporter to ask McCain about the real estate, and the candidate flubbed the answer, creating a new campaign issue.
- The Clarion Fund inundated the presidential swing states with a DVD called "Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West." It was a classic example of the murky space between campaigning and issue advocacy that many of these groups occupy. NPR listeners and npr.org readers told us about the DVD, and we give them our profuse thanks. All of them all told us the video seemed meant to promote McCain. As for the Clarion Fund, it hired a new public relations firm after we aired our broadcast story. But it never clarified its financing or activities — as, indeed, it had no need to; the fund is a 501(c)(3) charity with minimal disclosure requirements. People speaking for the fund insisted there was no partisan agenda, and said they had distributed 28 million copies of the DVD in key election states only to attract the attention of reporters covering the race.
- The biggest player among these groups was the Service Employees International Union, and sometimes it seemed to reach everywhere in the liberal establishment. And long before the election, SEIU had already budgeted $10 million to hold their favored candidates accountable to the union's agenda in 2009.
But figuring out what impact the groups actually had on the campaigns is a tricky proposition. For one thing, the mish-mash of tax rules, campaign finance laws and Supreme Court decisions made it impossible to know precisely how much money they spent. We gave it a good try here, by adding together all the money that groups reported spending on election-related communications since July:
PRESIDENTIAL RACE Conservative Groups: $40.9 million Liberal Groups: $53.1 million
SENATE RACES Conservative Groups: $40.4 million Liberal Groups: $29.6 million
This is a vast undercount, since many groups only have to report election ads that show up on TV or radio or that explicitly say to vote for or against a candidate.We recorded $4.2 million for MoveOn.org, for example, while the group engaged in plenty of other activities and said in a press release that it spent more than $30 million overall.
Chalk it up to a system that, for better or worse, doesn't require vast amounts of election-related activity to be reported. Money, in any case, doesn't necessarily equal impact. Many organizations spent big on mobilizing their members and getting out the vote, and that counts for something.
But what about those attack ads? All ads and groups are measured nowadays against the standard of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the 2004 group that wounded Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry's aspirations. Nobody achieved Swift Boat status this year, though some tried hard, on the left (Brave New PAC) and right (National Republican Trust and American Issues Project).
Perhaps the media, which hyped the Swift Boat group in 2004, learned their lesson and avoided giving any attack too much credit, theorizes John Geer, an expert on negative advertising at Vanderbilt University. Tom Matzzie, a Democratic strategist, has his own diagnosis: that the Internet has made it too easy to fact-check dishonest ads. Conservative operative Chris LaCivita, who went from Swift Boat Veterans in 2004 to American Issues Project this year, says it was just money. He says AIP simply couldn't raise enough from big donors after Wall Street crashed.
And maybe attack groups never got a direct shot at a candidate's core message. The Swift Boat ads took aim at Kerry's war record, which he was running on. But this year, when the economy became the main issue for voters, attacks on Senator Obama's nefarious "associations" or McCain's health seemed less relevant.
Plus, Senator Obama buried McCain and his allies with the biggest pot of money ever spent on an election. "With Obama's fundraising advantage, all the 527s kinda got crowded out," Geer says. "We're going to go to a system where the next presidential candidates are both going to have to raise so much money...that all of the sudden these people who are funding these 527s have to think about whether it's worth putting their money down."
An interest group's goal is not only to help a candidate win, but also to ingratiate itself with the politician or party, says Steve Weissman, of the Campaign Finance Institute. Even if labor unions and such groups as MoveOn.org and Planned Parenthood didn't necessarily tip the election to Senator Obama, they dedicated a vast amount of money and resources to his cause, and now can hope that he feels indebted to them.
Let's take a look at who racked up some chits. (Click on the links to watch the groups' ads and read about their funding and leadership.)
PRESIDENTIAL RACE **Liberal Groups** 1. SERVICE EMPLOYEES INTERNATIONAL UNION = $23,107,433 2. UNITED AUTO WORKERS = $4,860,571 3. MOVEON.ORG = $4,185,821 4. AFSCME = $2,312,723 5. PLANNED PARENTHOOD ACTION FUND = $2,096,495 6. ADVANCING WISCONSIN = $2,094,687 7. AMERICAN FEDERATION OF TEACHERS = $1,997,375 8. PROGRESSIVE FUTURE = $1,496,323 9. SIERRA CLUB = $1,213,068 10. HEALTH CARE FOR AMERICA NOW = $1,132,085 11. NARAL PRO-CHOICE AMERICA = $1,117,991 12. DEFENDERS OF WILDLIFE ACTION FUND = $1,021,241
**Conservative Groups** 1. NATIONAL RIFLE ASSOCIATION = $6,946,238 2. NATIONAL REPUBLICAN TRUST = $6,592,925 3. VETS FOR FREEDOM = $4,596,149 4. NATIONAL RIGHT TO LIFE = $4,504,422 5. LET FREEDOM RING = $3,257,939 6. AMERICAN ISSUES PROJECT = $2,878,873 7. REPUBLICAN MAJORITY CAMPAIGN = $1,851,120 8. FOCUS ON THE FAMILY ACTION = $1,332,862 9. RIGHTCHANGE.COM = $1,318,691 10. REPUBLICAN JEWISH COALITION = $1,267,002 11. COMMITTEE FOR TRUTH IN POLITICS = $1,192,510* 12. NATIONAL CAMPAIGN FUND = $1,167,810
*The total for the Committee for Truth in Politics is an estimate by the Campaign Media Analysis Group. The group argues in a pending lawsuit that it doesn't have to report its expenditures.
The biggest spenders on the left were obviously labor unions. George Soros — who made himself a political lightning rod by bankrolling anti-Bush groups in 2004 — in this cycle gave $3.5 million to Fund for America, $1 million to America Votes, about half a million to other liberal groups, and that's all that we know of. Hollywood producer Steve Bing also spent $2.5 million on the Fund for America, and about a million more on other pro-Democratic groups.
On the right, pharmaceutical executive Fred Eshelman apparently outspent Soros, dumping $5.5 million into his anti-Obama 527, RightChange.com. Other conservative megadonors include Texas businessman Harold Simmons, who gave $2.9 million to American Issues Project, and retired physician John Templeton Jr., who gave at least $2.7 million to Let Freedom Ring.
In contrast, a few conservative political action committees were able to raise remarkable sums via strictly regulated small donations. The National Republican Trust, for example, reported spending an incredible $6.6 million on the election, despite being founded in September.
Now, shifting to congressional races....
We set out to cover Senate races, figuring that several contests could be pivotal to the chamber's makeup next year, while the House was clearly destined to become more Democratic. Outside groups saw it that way too, and piled into Senate contests as the election drew near. Weissman says independent groups focused more on congressional races than in 2004. In some of the closest contests, outside groups with huge warchests had the potential to make a significant difference, he says. (See our chart of groups below.)
And speaking of collecting chits, the pharmaceutical industry, under the guise of America's Agenda: Health Care for Kids, went so far as to spend millions on incumbents of both parties — many of them in completely safe seats. Surely a good way to make friends in Congress.
A popular strategy on the left was funneling union money through independent 527s to produce attack ads. Unions produced their own ads, but they also provided almost all the funding for Patriot Majority to blitz key Senate races. Union money flowed to Citizens for Strength and Security, Majority Action, Campaign Money Watch — all of them 527s that report their contributions.
On the right, this election cycle saw the creation of several new 501(c)(4) nonprofits, which don't have to disclose their donors, focusing on congressional races. High-powered examples include the Employee Freedom Action Committee and American Future Fund, as well as Coloradans for Economic Growth and American Energy Alliance. Freedom's Watch also fits the bill, though we know it's bankrolled by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. Of course, Americans for Job Security has been doing this for years, and appears to be unfazed by a complaint to the Internal Revenue Service that it's violating its tax status.
Weissman, in a recent report on independent groups, points to the increasing popularity of 501(c)(4) advocacy groups and 501(c)(6) trade associations on the right and the left as a major trend of this election season.
"The impact," he tells us, "is that there's more ads out there that you don't quite know who's behind them."
That's why we started the Secret Money Project, to help shed some light on the groups trying to influence your vote. We hope it's proved enlightening.
— Will Evans and Peter Overby
SENATE RACES **Liberal Groups** 1. PATRIOT MAJORITY = $5,171,393 2. AMERICA'S AGENDA: HEALTH CARE FOR KIDS = $4,403,124 3. SERVICE EMPLOYEES INTERNATIONAL UNION = $2,662,464 4. CAMPAIGN MONEY WATCH = $2,357,409 5. AMERICAN RIGHTS AT WORK = $2,300,049 6. LEAGUE OF CONSERVATION VOTERS = $1,626,664 7. NATIONAL EDUCATION ASSOCIATION = $1,328,032 8. AFSCME = $1,291,950 9. CITIZENS FOR STRENGTH AND SECURITY = $1,163,352 10. ALLIANCE FOR A BETTER MINNESOTA = $1,077,453 11. MAJORITY ACTION = $1,025,276 12. PLANNED PARENTHOOD ACTION FUND = $1,016,052
**Conservative Groups** 1. U.S. CHAMBER OF COMMERCE = $13,251,304 2. FREEDOM'S WATCH = $5,577,688 3. AMERICANS FOR JOB SECURITY = $5,279,833 4. EMPLOYEE FREEDOM ACTION COMMITTEE = $3,528,389* 5. AMERICAN FUTURE FUND = $1,610,238 6. NATIONAL FEDERATION OF INDEPENDENT BUSINESS = $1,307,147 7. CLUB FOR GROWTH = $1,122,889 8. NATIONAL RIFLE ASSOCIATION = $1,079,801 9. AMERICAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION = $922,000 10. AMERICA'S AGENDA: HEALTH CARE FOR KIDS = $879,660 11. AMERICAN ENERGY ALLIANCE = $777,092 12. COLORADANS FOR ECONOMIC GROWTH = $670,562
*The Employee Freedom Action Committee's total is an estimate by the Campaign Media Analysis Group, since the group didn't have to file government reports on its expenditures. For example, the group ended its ad campaigns in Senate races just before the reporting requirements clicked in. Its ads after that didn't mention candidates by name, again avoiding filing requirements. [Update 11/18/08: EFAC informs us that its ad buys actually cost $6.9 million, not counting production costs.]
METHODOLOGY: We compiled our totals using Federal Election Commission filings by groups on their independent expenditures (messages explicitly advocating the election or defeat of a candidate) and electioneering communications (broadcast ads mentioning a candidate close to the election). Our starting date was July 1, the beginning of the first month after the presidential primaries ended. When an organization had an affiliated PAC, 527 and 501(c)(4), we added all the money together. We also combined the spending of unions and their locals, as well as national groups with their state affiliates. When a group reported one bulk expenditure for presidential, Senate and House ads, we tried to approximate the split. Our totals are certainly an undercount. Here are some reasons why: Massive voter mobilization efforts aren't counted. Some groups may have not reported independent expenditures, claiming they didn't expressly advocate for a candidate. Some other groups appeared to tailor their campaigns to avoid reporting requirements. Even with the numbers we do have, some groups filed inaccurate or incomplete reports. So don't take this as a full accounting, but rather a window into the world of independent groups, given the level of transparency that we currently have.