Faster than a speeding teleprompter, more powerful than a joint endorsement from the ghosts of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, able to leap media markets in a single ad buy. OK, maybe not. But the era of Super PACs is here and it’s shifting the way political consultants approach and practice their trade.
Unleashed by the Supreme Court’s “Citizen’s United” decision, which said corporate political spending could not be capped, the groups bypass the same rules that force candidates to spend hours on the phone courting donors. They are half 527 organizations that can collect unlimited sums of cash, half 501(c)4 “social welfare” nonprofits backed by anonymous contributions. And they are run by some of the top political talent in the business as high-level operatives continue to find homes with groups like American Crossroads and Priorities USA Action.
Last cycle, outside structures made their presence known in a big way. Republicans retook the House and made gains in the Senate thanks in part to TV spots, mailers and phone calls paid for by organizations like American Crossroads, a Super PAC co-founded by GOP operatives Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie. Its 501 (c)4 affiliate is Crossroads GPS. The groups swooped in with early ad buys in some races, quickly defining Democratic incumbents. In other spots, they came in with late TV blitzes, overwhelming the opposition in the run-up to Election Day and helping push many GOP candidates over the finish line.
Combined, the two groups spent some $38.6 million to help elect Republicans last fall. In 2012, that spending is likely to be doubled.
“We have organizations with the ability to marshal resources and focus a machinegun fire of ads at a particular message,” says Paul Wilson, whose firm Wilson-Grand Communications worked with American Crossroads in the 2010 cycle. “The candidate doesn’t control the message anymore.”
That’s an admission most media consultants wouldn’t make just four years ago and it marks a major break from decades of purely candidate-driven messaging. Last year, the new dynamic altered strategy for scores of candidate campaigns in the midterm elections and it’s a dynamic the 2012 cycle is likely to cement as Democrats join the outside spending party in earnest.
After railing against the lack of disclosure and runaway spending among outside groups on the right in 2010, President Obama has unleashed the left just in time for his own reelection effort. The result is a network of Democratic outside structures, built to compete dollar for dollar in 2012 with their counterparts on the right. Priorities USA Action—the largest and most prominent new outside group on the left—is headed by former White House Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton. Much like American Crossroads, it also has a 501(c)4 affiliate—Priorities USA.
Ahead of 2012, campaign finance watchdogs are busy decrying the impact of such groups, while some in Congress are still searching for ways to blunt their influence. But the more practical question for political pros is what their emergence means, not only for the impending presidential cycle, but for the future of the consulting industry.
Most campaigns have loads of staff and volunteers to manage. The mass of humanity clutters offices that usually have the decorative touches of a fraternity house. For a candidate campaign, it’s a show of strength to have so many people either sacrificing their time or getting a paycheck.
The Super PACS are different. They have skeleton crews working out of relatively nondescript cubicles. American Crossroads employed 12 people last election cycle and it expects to have less than 20 on staff for the 2012 cycle. It’s a point of pride that 90 cents of every dollar raised goes to drawing in voters.
If campaigns require armies, Super PACs are strike forces.