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Special Interest Ads

January 12, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: Interest groups are once again taking to the airwaves in campaign 2000, focusing attention on their particular issues and indirectly campaigning for or against different candidates. Business leaders for sensible priorities, a group led by a founder of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, wants to cut the defense budget.

PAUL NEWMAN: Admiral, could you give me a thumbnail sketch of our nuclear arsenal?

ADMIRAL SHANAHAN: Paul, we have enough warheads in our arsenal to destroy every major city on the planet 10 times over.

PAUL NEWMAN: Let’s say we reduce that arsenal so that we could destroy every major city on the planet only four times over.

ADMIRAL SHANAHAN: We’d save $15 billion a year every year. That could buy a lot of education for a lot of kids. Invest in kids, not pentagon waste. Let’s get the candidates and politicians to talk about the real issue.

TERENCE SMITH: Such advertising can attract new activists like this former schoolteacher who now has her own commercial.

SPOKESPERSON: Hi. Some of you know me as the cookie lady. I’ve been asking questions and trying to get some straight answers. Improving our schools, providing health care for our kids, and taking care of local priorities costs money. We can save $15 billion a year by reducing our nuclear arsenal, and still maintain the world’s strongest defense. Doesn’t that make sense?

TERENCE SMITH: The Sierra Club, which focuses on the environment, takes Texas Gov. George W. Bush to task for his record on air and water pollution.

SPOKESPERSON: Texas leads the nation in cancer-causing and toxic chemicals released into the environment, in hazardous waste, in the number of factories violating clean water standards.And while federal laws are forcing states to clean up their air and water, Texas lags far behind. And even though Texas has over 400,000 kids with asthma, like William Tinker, Gov. George Bush has proposed weakening the Clean Air Act. Call George Bush, tell him to clean up Texas’s air and water for our families, and for William Tinker’s future.

TERENCE SMITH: The Democratic candidates have not escaped the issue ad wars. In December, during a New Hampshire town meeting sponsored by ABC’s “Nightline,” the Republican National Committee aired this commercial on the local television station.

AD SPOKESMAN: Last week Bill Bradley said he might raise taxes. For a solid week, Al Gore attacked him for that statement. But then Gore admitted that he, too, might hike taxes. And remember, in 1993 it was Gore who cast the tie-breaking vote for the biggest tax increase in history after breaking his campaign promise to pass a middle-class tax cut. Call Gore and Bradley. Tell them not to take any more money from American families to give to Washington bureaucrats.

TERENCE SMITH: For several weeks, Republican Sen. John McCain has been under assault from the right. Americans for Tax Reform, a conservative activist coalition, objects to his campaign finance reform plan.

SPOKESPERSON: We all know John McCain’s inspiring personal story. But can we trust his political agenda? McCain’s top priority in Washington: Nationalized campaign laws that muffle conservative voices, making taxpayers pay for political campaigns. Conservative leaders call McCain’s political agenda dangerous and reckless, dishonest, tramples on the Constitution. And the real purpose, to throttle criticism of politicians. Call Senator McCain. Tell him that being a Washington politician doesn’t give him the right to trample our rights.

TERENCE SMITH: More issue and special interest ads are expected on the airwaves as the primary season progresses.

TERENCE SMITH: For more on the role that interest group and political party ads are playing in the presidential campaign, we turn to John Carroll, a long-time media and advertising critic who is now managing editor at WGBH TV’s “Greater Boston” news and public affairs program; and to Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania; and to Doug Bailey, a longtime political consultant and founder of the, an Internet site that provides video on demand about candidates and political issues. Welcome to all three of you. 

Kathleen Jamieson, let me begin with you and ask you, what are — what is special and different about these issue ads and special interest ads? How do they differ from the regular candidate ads?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: The issue ads are created by a footnote inBuckley vs. Vallejo, which says that as long as the advertising doesn’t expressly advocate the election or defeat of a candidate, it is not required to do two things: One, it doesn’t have to disclose the source, and secondly, it can spend as much money as it wants. There is no cap on the amount of expenditures. Its function in the system was intended by the court to increase the number of voices that were able to participate in the process. In practice, it is able to set the agenda, that is, focus on issues that might not otherwise be the focus of the campaign, shift the balance of discourse by putting more money behind some messages than others, and when it is coherent and behind a party, create a sense on the part of the electorate of the ideological grounding of that party.

TERENCE SMITH: John Carroll, how effective can these ads be in doing that sort of thing in a presidential campaign?

JOHN CARROLL: Well, it depends. Issue ads are sort of like kibitzers at a card game. If they circle the table long enough, someone’s going to start rearranging his hand. And that’s what they hope to do in one way or another. They hope the media pays attention, and that get a bump from that, because these are — these are generally campaigns that can’t compete with the candidate ads on a money standpoint. You’re talking tens of thousands of dollars versus tens of millions of dollars. So if they can get a media bump from them, that’s a good effect for them, also, to stir up some grassroots activity. And the third thing they can try to do is make a candidate spend more money defending him or herself on a specific issue that the special interest ad raises.

TERENCE SMITH: Doug Bailey, you’ve made hundreds of ads for political — for Republican candidates over the years. When you look at two of the so-called attack ads in the ones that we just saw, the attack on Sen. McCain, on his campaign finance reform proposal, and against Gov. Bush on the environment; how effective do you think those are?

DOUG BAILEY: Well, one of the things that’s important is that most voters don’t pay enough attention to the ads to know who made them. And so when an attack ad comes on — the attack ad against McCain, for example, was pretty hard-hitting, although that is the softer version of that ad. They had made one earlier that didn’t recognize him as a prisoner of war and didn’t have anything nice to say about him at all. But people looking at that ad quickly and just get the notion that McCain is being seriously attacked in pretty blunt style may conclude that Gov. Bush did it. I mean, that’s the contest that’s going on. It’s Bush versus McCain. So issue ads tend to be a wildcard in a race. Conversely, if the ad against Bush by the Sierra Club on the environment record in Texas is seen as an attack on Bush and might have come from McCain, then it might have bad impact and negative impact, as well. My own —

TERENCE SMITH: So they could backfire?

DOUG BAILEY: Absolutely, it could backfire. My sense is that these are not just agenda-setting ads, although I think the Sierra Club ad falls into that category. The Americans for Tax Reform ad is much more than that. They are playing a direct role in the campaign, and viewers can come to their own conclusion about that ad. My sense is that that’s a seriously overdone ad.


DOUG BAILEY: Overdone.

TERENCE SMITH: All right. Kathleen, from the research that I know you have done in past years, how much of this gets through to the public? Have you ever been able to measure that impact?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Yes, and it’s important to note that issue advocacy can in fact be a very strong voice in a campaign. In 1996, the AFL-CIO, basically offering a message consistent with the Democratic message and the message of Clinton/Gore, and the coalition, offering a message somewhat less consistent with that of Dole but consistent with that of the Republicans, managed in 14 congressional districts to outspend both of the candidates running for Congress. At that point, one has every reason to believe that that message is getting through. We’ve studied the impact of the issue advocacy in that election and found that it had some capacity to mobilize voters. The message was clear enough and decisive enough and tipped the message balance enough that it had an effect on the margins.

It’s also important to note from the research that Doug is absolutely right. The source of the message is rarely identified by voters. When we showed voters ads and did not tell them what we were going to ask, and then afterwards asked, “By the way, who was the sponsor, that is who paid for the ad?” over 80 percent of the time voters couldn’t tell us and drew the inference that the sponsor was, if it was an attack ad, the opposing candidate; if it was an ad that said nice things about someone, the candidate himself. The final thing that’s important to note about this from the research is that in 1998, the attack function in politics shifted to issue advocacy. As a result, the attack messages were there in the same rough proportions that they’d been in past years, but they weren’t being carried by the candidates themselves. That’s, in fact, the tendency we’re beginning to see this year.

TERENCE SMITH: John Carroll, we saw a moment ago the cookie lady, who is sort of emerging as one of the mini celebrities of this early campaign. What’s her story?

JOHN CARROLL: Well, she apparently saw one of the ads for Businessmen for Sensible Priorities, a group started by Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s. And their pitch is essentially, let’s shift some money from the Pentagon budget over to education; it’s a better priority. She saw the ad. It motivated her to go out and be active. And now she goes where the candidates are, and she hands out cookies with little pie charts on them. Apparently baked goods are the theme here. And she essentially tries to mobilize people to join in that effort to pressure candidates. And you notice that all of these ads, and as Kathleen said, they can’t advocate for you to vote or not vote again for someone, but they advocate for calling them. And this call to action is especially, I think, potent for the advocacy groups that are trying to push a specific issue as opposed to just attacking a candidate.

If I could add one thing about the AFL-CIO. It’s interesting. They did spend $35 million in 1996. I think they batted around .500 as far as their candidates went, the ones they backed, but they are not doing this kind of advertising this time around. They’ve moved much more toward organizing and grassroots movements. I think they see the limitations or the ceiling, perhaps, of what these ads can accomplish.

TERENCE SMITH: Or at least they’re not doing it yet. Doug Bailey?

DOUG BAILEY: Let me just make that point. I think the timing is important to understand here. In the early primaries where candidates are sort of going door to door and it’s retail politics, all advertising by issue groups or by campaigns is less effective than it is later on when the people don’t really know the candidates. I think that you may well see some AFL-CIO advertising down the road a little bit at a point in April or May when both parties have picked their nominees and, predictably, the Democratic Party candidate nominee is out of money, and the Republican candidate, George Bush, is not out of money. Then there is a need for somebody to step in and fill that void, and that may be the AFL-CIO.

TERENCE SMITH: And Kathleen, this is the famous soft money that we hear so much about?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: This is the famous soft money, and it can be used by the parties very effectively in order to communicate a coherent party message. That’s actually what happened in 1998. Money that in past election cycles would have been spent by issue advocacy groups appeared to have stayed with the parties, and as a result was used to create a very coherent message about the differences between Republicans and Democrats. And so the functions differ dramatically depending on who the sponsor is and whether you can even identify the sponsor. After all, one could be a completely anonymous group making up a name and tagging these ads with it. There’s no disclosure requirement here.

TERENCE SMITH: Any idea how much money, Kathleen, we’re talking about in the course of a campaign on special interest and issue ads?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: We anticipate that in this election cycle the issue advocates will outspend the presidential candidates by at least two to one. That’s not simply in broadcast. That’s in other forms of communication.

TERENCE SMITH: John Carroll, I suppose that in addition to getting around the money restraints, this is also a way to attack your opponent, or to have your opponent attacked, and not take the blame for it.

JOHN CARROLL: Well, that’s one of the interesting side effects of this, I think. There have been situations where candidates have gone to an interest group and asked them to stop advertising against that candidate’s opponent because of sort of the boomerang effect. When the negative ads went out, just as Doug and Kathleen were saying, the — sort of the backwash comes on the candidate who is on the other side. And he’s saying, “Please don’t do this, because it’s hurting me more than it’s helping me.” And there have been groups that have refused to do that, and there have been groups that have toned, I think, their message down.

DOUG BAILEY: I really would be interested to know, Terry, whether the Bush campaign either directly or indirectly communicated with the Americans for Tax Reform people to soften their ad on McCain, because they clearly changed ads to show a still, I think, overdone ad, but a much softer version. Who encouraged them to do that?

TERENCE SMITH: It is a fact that Governor Bush denied responsibility for that ad publicly. Kathleen, you were going to say something.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Yes. We have one clear historical instance in which an outside group, the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, came into a race, Bostwich vs. Wellstone, on behalf of Bostwich against Wellstone, and created a backlash against Bostwich that benefited Wellstone. And so this is a very real concern.

TERENCE SMITH: Well, there’s the evidence that they actually do make a difference. Doug, they can?

DOUG BAILEY: Oh, absolutely, and make a difference in another way, not just as an impact against or for a candidate, but to set an agenda. I think we haven’t talked enough, frankly, about the cookie mom and the Ben & Jerry’s ad. Frankly, if the cookie mom was also offering some Ben & Jerry’s, it would be the most popular campaign in America. But they are attempting to take an issue that does not appear in the polls as a significant issue and force it into the campaign and try to get the campaigns to react to it. And that is a perfectly legitimate agenda-setting kind of function.

TERENCE SMITH: Right. All right. That’s great. Doug Bailey, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, John Carroll; thank you all three very much.