TOPICS > Politics

How Do You Spend $1 Billion in a White House Race Anyway?

May 30, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Mitt Romney's win Tuesday in Texas effectively sets up a two-man contest for the White House. As President Obama and his Republican challenger look to corral votes and money, Judy Woodruff, The Washington Post's Tom Hamburger and Politico's Kenneth Vogel discuss the role of campaign finance and super PACs this election season.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we turn to the presidential campaign as the Republicans now all but officially have their candidate. President Obama phoned Mitt Romney today to congratulate him on wrapping up the GOP nomination.

Romney’s win in Texas effectively sets up a two-man contest on a five-month timetable. President Obama, and his Republican challenger have that long to corral votes. But it’s not just voters. There’s also the money. Romney’s been on a heavy schedule of fund-raisers, including yesterday’s in Las Vegas with Donald Trump. The event aimed to raise upwards of $2 million.

MITT ROMNEY (R): The president is going to raise a lot of money. And because of all that money that he is raising and that he’s going to spend, we’re going to have to make sure that we get our message out there. And you have helped make that possible tonight.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Indeed, the president has held his own series of big fund-raisers.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We’re not giving up, that we are going to keep pushing.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

BARACK OBAMA: And we continue to fight and we still hope and we are still going after change that we believe in.

(APPLAUSE)

BARACK OBAMA: And I’m going to need you to do it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And one at the home of actor George Clooney earlier this month that net a record $15 million.

The Obama reelection effort ended April with $147 million in the bank. That was more than double Romney’s total of $61 million in cash on hand. And, today, the president’s campaign tweeted, asking for more help ahead of the fund-raising deadline for May.

But that’s only part of the story. Outside groups supporting Romney are lining up to put additional unrestricted amounts of money behind him. Politico reported today that Republican super PACs and other groups are prepared to spend up to $1 billion on the presidential and congressional races this year, chief among the spenders, billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, giving $395 million for political advocacy, and the pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future planning to spend $100 million on advertising.

By contrast, outside Democratic groups are expected to spend a total of $300 million to $500 million, only about half the total of their Republican counterparts, all of which means that 2012 will certainly be the most expensive election ever, with both sides poised to spend a $1 billion apiece.

In 2008, then-candidate Obama and Republican John McCain spent just over a billion dollars combined.

Well, with so much more money being raised this year, how will it be spent?

We turn to two reporters who closely track campaign finance. Tom Hamburger is with The Washington Post and Ken Vogel is with Politico.

Gentlemen, it’s all about the money. At least that’s what we’re talking about tonight.

Ken Vogel, so these outside Republican groups can actually raise $1 billion?

KEN VOGEL, Politico: It certainly appears so.

When I covered the first cycle of this unlimited outside money in 2010, which was sort of precipitated by these federal court decisions that allowed these outside groups to accept unlimited funds from very wealthy donors, there were some really vast, big figures that were thrown about.

The Karl Rove groups, American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, were talking about raising $52 million. And I thought there’s just no way that they are going to raise that much. Well, they raised more than that. They raised upwards of $70 million. And so there are many more groups now that are raising that kind of money, and the conservative donors, these very wealthy business types, are especially motivated. They have a deep enmity towards President Obama.

And that is causing them to write these huge, unprecedented checks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tom Hamburger, how much do we know about who is giving this kind of money?

TOM HAMBURGER, The Washington Post: Well, Judy, that’s the big concern this cycle, where there is not only a big increase of money. There is a big increase in secret money, where the donors are unknown.

So for many of the groups that were described today in the story that Ken helped produce, there are organizations like Crossroads GPS, like some of the Koch brothers-backed groups, that are officially 501(c)(4), nonprofit organizations that do not disclose their donors.

So, part of challenge for us as reporters and some say a challenge to democracy itself is unknown donors, secret donors, anonymous donors giving these vast sums.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Ken Vogel, can the outside Democratic groups supporting President Obama, supporting Democratic candidates, can they even come close to a billion?

KEN VOGEL: Short answer, no.

What they’re trying to do is offset the disadvantage that they realize that they’re going to be facing by focusing their efforts differently. While these outside groups on the right are focusing almost entirely on political advertising, the groups on the left are focusing on organizing, on the ground, door to door, the retail politicking that in some ways seems quaint compared to the outside advertising blitz that is coming.

But the reason why Democrats are going to be unable to match the dollar for dollar is that some of their biggest donors are simply not writing the same types of checks that Republicans are. And there are a number of reasons for that, including that the last time that they really wrote these big checks was 2004 to defeat George Bush, obviously unsuccessful. That left a bad taste in their mouth.

Also, President Obama has discouraged this type of outside spending in the past, most recently in 2008, when frankly he didn’t really need the help. He was on a historic fund-raising clip and he told people don’t give this money. And also a lot of these donors are just not that excited about the Obama presidency. They think that he has been insufficiently aggressive on their causes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tom Hamburger, we know a lot of this money is being spent on television advertising. And what else, what else? That’s so much. At some point, you absorb all the television airtime there is, right?

TOM HAMBURGER: Yes. Yes. It would seem as though there was a finite amount of airtime to buy. One of the things that we’re seeing this cycle, Judy, which we — is another first — is the early start of the campaign, so that we are seeing vast advertising buys, particularly in the swing states of Missouri, Ohio, races where there’s not only a close presidential contest, but also Senate seats at stake, spending months and months earlier than we have seen it before.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And no coordination is what the law says between these outside groups and the official campaign?

TOM HAMBURGER: The law says, Judy, no coordination, and yet one can’t help but notice that there is a close familiarity between the themes that are offered by the super PACs or the organizations that are supposedly independent and those that are backing an official candidate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Ken Vogel, what more do candidates get with more money? Do they get a qualitative, a better message with more airtime? What’s the difference?

KEN VOGEL: Well, one of the things that these outside groups allow the candidates to do is to sit back and let someone else do their dirty work.

Almost all of these outside group ads have been negative thus far, and I don’t see any reason to believe that that’s going to change as we head towards Election Day. So, even while it seems that there are these close links between the candidates and these outside groups — sometimes, their former staffers are running these groups — they can say, hey, we’re prohibited from coordinating with these groups, so even if we don’t like their negative messages, there’s nothing that we can do.

Whether that’s of benefit or not, I think a lot of viewers watch those ads and they think — they don’t think to themselves, this is the Romney super PAC attacking President Obama. They think Mitt Romney is going after President Obama.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about money, Tom Hamburger, spent on grassroots organizing, knocking on doors, handing out fliers, having conversations with voters?

TOM HAMBURGER: Judy, we are seeing in some campaigns — Ken mentioned a moment ago that Democratic candidates and the Democratic Party, which is not able to compete so far as well or as aggressively with Republicans raising money for television ads, may be turning more to grassroots-style organizing, door-to-door activity, phone banks, opposition research, and that sort of thing.

Both parties are in close competition there. Both parties and their allies on the left and the right have taken a play from organized — a page from the organized labor playbook. Go door to door. Go find individual potential support and look them in the eye. And that’s increasingly a source or a destination for campaign money.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You both talk to people in campaigns all the time. Is there a sense that all this is good for democracy or is that even part of the conversation?

KEN VOGEL: That’s, frankly, not part of the conversation on the operative side of things.

These are folks who are political professionals. They make money by spending money on these types of ads, and they believe — and there’s reason to believe that they — that this is not a farfetched belief — that this type of advertising works. Negative advertising in particular works. That’s why campaigns do it.

That’s why these outside groups do it. It’s also easier than the type of grassroots organizing that Tom was talking about.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And in fact you raised the point that I wanted to mention, and that is, Tom Hamburger, that this money does go to television stations, radio stations around the country, and these consultants. . .

TOM HAMBURGER: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: . . . who are the middlemen, so to speak, in the process.

TOM HAMBURGER: Yes. There’s a whole class of beneficiaries of this extraordinary spending, the consultants, the ad buyers, those who produce the ads.

And can I — if I can just jump in on your question of the effect on Judy. . .

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sure.

TOM HAMBURGER: . . . I do hear that discussed, sometimes from campaign managers and traditional — and candidates themselves, who say these Democrats have a way of being hijacked now by outside interests in a way we haven’t seen before, and it requires a whole new strategy and approach to elections and a wariness of the big outside money that can roll in.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it’s certainly added another dimension to what we want to follow as we follow the campaign.

Tom Hamburger, Ken Vogel, thank you.

KEN VOGEL: Thank you.

TOM HAMBURGER: Thanks.