WASHINGTON—For the cost of a one-page ad in the Sept. 10 New York Times, the liberal group MoveOn.org bought itself a minor media frenzy.
Its attack on Gen. David Petraeus (dubbing him “General Betray Us”) sent Republicans into outrage, knocked Democrats off stride, put the Times on the defensive, drew a current and a former president into the fray and prompted denunciations from both houses of Congress.
Did it backfire badly on war opponents or succeed wildly as a publicity stunt?
In either case, it illustrated a key fact of life about today’s politics: the ability of independent groups of all shapes and sizes to commandeer the debate in ways that politicians seem helpless to resist.
It was a lesson epitomized in the last presidential race by the Swift Boat ads attacking John Kerry—a minor ad buy in seven inexpensive markets in three swing states (Wisconsin included) that came to utterly dominate coverage of the campaign and change the course of a close contest.
“It just adds more unpredictability to the race,” Democratic consultant Erik Smith said of the role of independent groups in campaigns, noting that, even when they function as allies of candidates or parties, they often have different agendas and strategies.
Already, there are signs aplenty that independent groups will leave their stamp on the `08 presidential race:
MoveOn’s attack on Petraeus turned into a bitter exchange with GOP candidate Rudy Giuliani. Earlier in the year, the group ran ads attacking GOP candidate John McCain over the war.
Club for Growth, a conservative group that supports small government and lower taxes, has gone after Republican candidate Mike Huckabee with an anti-Huckabee Web site and an August TV ad in Iowa. The group faults Huckabee’s record on taxes and spending when he was governor of Arkansas.
A coalition that includes the powerful retiree group AARP has spent more than $20 million on an early ad campaign designed to raise the profile of health care and retirement security as election issues.
The League of Conservation Voters launched an ad campaign in Iowa and New Hampshire, to the tune of “(It’s Not Easy) Bein’ Green,” prodding candidates to talk more about global warming.
These examples point to the wide range of roles such groups can play, whether they’re attacking candidates or simply pushing their agenda.
MoveOn is a case of a liberal group doing battle with its natural adversaries in the Republican Party. Club for Growth has a long history of playing on its side of the partisan divide, plunging into GOP primaries against Republicans it deems insufficiently conservative on taxes and spending.
Its executive director, David Keating, says it hasn’t decided what precise role it will play in the GOP race for president, but it might depend on which candidates come to the fore. The group has no use for John McCain, for instance, thanks to his opposition to the Bush tax cuts and support for campaign finance restrictions.
“If McCain were to surface or rise again, our PAC (political action committee) might try to push him back down,” Keating said.
Meanwhile, groups such as the League of Conservation Voters are trying to pressure candidates to embrace their issue agenda. The league ad uses front-runners from both parties to make its point.
“The question isn’t just who will be our first woman president,” the ad states as the screen shows an image of Hillary Rodham Clinton turning green. “Or who will be our first Mormon president” (as Mitt Romney turns green), “or who will be our first black president” (as Barack Obama turns green). “What the world is waiting to see is who will be our first green president,” the ad says.
According to Navin Nayak, the league’s global warming project director: “We’re going into the most wide-open, competitive presidential primary in 80 years. So the best use of our resources was really not trying necessarily to pick the winner but use that competitive landscape to elevate our issues and make sure all candidates out there are being questioned on them.”
Four years ago, a handful of massively funded groups dominated the independent ad spending. This time, the landscape could look different.
“People have become more comfortable with these vehicles and become more entrepreneurial,” said Smith, who worked in the 2004 election for Democratic candidate Dick Gephardt, then The Media Fund, an independent advertiser that spent millions attacking President Bush.
“I think you’re going to have more groups out there (this time), but they’re going to be smaller, which means doing a lot of different things. They will probably be competing for money, so people will be doing some more provocative things like MoveOn did,” Smith said. “You may see a lot of kind of unintended consequences.”
The MoveOn ad was a striking example of how groups can do things that make even their partisan allies cringe.
Republicans brought up the ad at every opportunity and sought to link it to Democratic presidential hopefuls such as Clinton. Some Democrats saw the ad as a harmful distraction from their efforts to debate the war. Both Democratic-controlled houses of Congress passed resolutions condemning the ad, though the issue divided Democrats.
In the Senate, Russ Feingold voted against it (as did Clinton). Feingold also voted against a Democratic alternative, which condemned not only attacks on Petraeus but also attack ads in previous elections against Democratic Vietnam veterans—2004 presidential nominee John Kerry and former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland.
Feingold, a popular figure with MoveOn, was the only senator to oppose both versions of the resolution. The Wisconsin Democrat said in a statement that he disagreed with the wording in all of the ads but called the resolutions a diversion from the war debate and said the Senate shouldn’t “get in the habit of condemning political speech, even speech that is offensive.”
Backlash or no backlash, the ad might have served some of MoveOn’s purposes in appealing to its 3 million-plus membership and bolstering its identity as a staunch anti-Bush voice pushing the Democratic Party to fight the war more aggressively.
One definition of an impact ad is that it forces politicians to react to it.
The spot not only drew responses from Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, who condemned the spot, but also from former President Clinton, who termed Republican outrage over the ad cynical and hypocritical. It also left the Times under attack, with the paper later admitting it charged MoveOn too little for the ad space. The group ended up sending the newspaper another check, putting the cost of the ad at a bit more than $140,000.
MoveOn acknowledged the ad disturbed some of its members but said on its Web site that it went hand in hand with a strategy of capturing the media’s attention:
“The language of the ad was intended to be both hard-hitting and catchy. The truth about the mainstream media is that the kind of analyses with which some of us feel more comfortable don’t generate enough attention or news coverage to shift the debate,” MoveOn said. “Phrases like `General Betray Us’ are `sticky’—that is, they get repeated again and again in the media—because they are so memorable.”
The ultimate example of a “sticky” ad in recent election history also was aired by an independent group: the anti-Kerry Swift Boat spots, which accused the Democrat of lying about his war record.
The first spot against the Massachusetts senator aired a mere 741 times in seven markets home to 2 percent of the U.S. population; the spots ended up driving the national campaign debate for a month or more, and in the view of strategists on both sides, had more impact than far more costly ad campaigns aired by liberal groups opposed to Bush.
One out of every five ads in the 2004 race was aired by an independent group, compared with one out of 11 in 2000, according to data from the Wisconsin Advertising Project.
Since the last election, the rules of engagement for independent political activity appear to have shifted in some ways.
An array of groups (including Club for Growth, League of Conservation Voters, MoveOn and the Swift Boats veterans) were fined or agreed to pay large penalties to the Federal Election Commission to settle charges they evaded limits on political contributions in 2004. At the same time, a recent Supreme Court decision in a challenge to the McCain-Feingold campaign law by Wisconsin Right to Life appears to ease restrictions on election-time ads by independent groups, though the practical effects for 2008 are unclear.
“We know the boundaries are looser now than we thought a year ago,” said Michael Malbin of the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute.
Smith, whose former group The Media Fund spent more than $50 million on the 2004 race, spoke in an interview after that campaign about the effect that independent spending has on the election debate.
“Campaign strategy used to be kind of three-sided: one campaign, the other campaign and the media. Those were the forces that were kind of determining what was talked about every day,” Smith said. “Now you’ve got four-, five-, six-, seven-sided campaigns, where, for a relatively low investment, somebody can impact both campaigns profoundly.”
Keating, of the Club for Growth, said groups that want to influence public policy have no choice but to play an active role in national elections.
“Parties and candidates are only interested in power and winning, and outside groups are often more interested in getting their issues adopted,” Keating said. “The election environment is a great place to have your issues make an impact. That’s when everyone’s paying attention.”