TOPICS > Politics

Outside Groups Spend Big on Campaign Ads

October 11, 2010 at 5:35 PM EDT
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Third-party groups on both sides of the political aisle are spending big on advertising this fall - but not at the same rate. Judy Woodruff talks with Evan Tracey, founder of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, for details.

JUDY WOODRUFF: With a little more than three weeks left until Election Day, Democrats are taking at least one new approach to try and close the enthusiasm gap with Republicans.

President Obama and other Democratic Party leaders have been hammering away at the undisclosed money being spent by outside interest groups on TV ads this election season. At a rally in Philadelphia yesterday, the president called the trend a threat to our democracy.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Don’t let them hijack your agenda. The American people deserve to know who is trying to sway their elections. And you can’t stand by and let special interests drown out the voices of the American people.


JUDY WOODRUFF: The main targets of Democrats’ criticism have been the conservative political entity American Crossroads, its nonprofit affiliate, Crossroads GPS, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The Crossroads groups, co-founded by former Bush political advisers Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie, have pledged to spend upwards of $50 million on behalf of Republican candidates this fall. The Chamber, meanwhile, has vowed to dole out $75 million on the midterms.

The Democratic National Committee released an ad this weekend accusing the groups of using donations from foreigners on campaign ads.

NARRATOR: It appears they have even taken secret foreign money to influence our elections. It’s incredible, Republicans benefiting from secret foreign money. Tell the Bush crowd and the Chamber of Commerce, stop stealing our democracy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In an appearance yesterday on “FOX News Sunday,” Karl Rove denounced the charges.

KARL ROVE, former senior adviser to President Bush: And they have not one shred of evidence to back up that baseless lie. This is a desperate and I think disturbing trend by the president of the United States to tar his political adversaries with some kind of enemies list, with being unrestrained by any fact or evidence whatsoever.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But Democrats wouldn’t relent, despite The New York Times reporting Saturday that — quote — “a closer examination shows that there is little evidence that what the Chamber does in collecting overseas dues is improper or even unusual.”

White House adviser David Axelrod was pressed on the matter by host Bob Schieffer of CBS News’ “Face the Nation.”

BOB SCHIEFFER, host, “Face The Nation”: This part about foreign money, that appears to be peanuts, Mr. Axelrod. I mean, do you have any evidence that it’s anything other than peanuts?

DAVID AXELROD, senior White House adviser: Well, do you have any evidence that it’s not, Bob? The fact is that the Chamber has asserted that, but they won’t release any information about where their campaign money is coming from. And that’s at the core of the problem here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Separately, polls show that, when voters are asked what issues are uppermost in their mind heading into this year’s elections, the economy and jobs are named most frequently, while the matter of campaign spending is seldom, if ever, raised.

Third-party groups on both sides of the political aisle are spending big on advertising this fall, though not at the same rate. Republican-backed outside groups have spent some $46 million on TV ads on congressional races in the past two months, compared with just $7 million by interest groups backed by Democrats.

Well, to make sense of the numbers, we’re joined by Evan Tracey. He’s the founder of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks political advertising.

EVAN TRACEY, good to have you back with us again.

EVAN TRACEY, chief operating officer, Campaign Media Analysis Group: It’s great to be here. How are you?

JUDY WOODRUFF: I’m very well. And good to see you. But this is such a diversity — a disparity, $46 million on the part of conservative and Republican outside groups vs. $7 million on the part of Democratic groups.

Is this consistent with what we have seen in the past?

EVAN TRACEY: Well, it’s interesting, because when you sort of look at the recent history of campaign finance, it used to be that the parties were the big purveyors of this, what used to be called soft money, and it was fairly equal.

After McCain-Feingold, the Democrats really took a strong edge with the 527s and those groups that were basically backed by the Soroses and the labor unions. But now, post-Citizens United, you really see that Republicans have gotten kind of back in the game in a big way and are really outspending the Democrats in these key congressional and Senate races, not just in the amount of money they’re spending, in the scope and the coverage of races right now that they’re sitting.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Post-Citizens United. You’re referring to that Supreme Court decision that said it was all right for a corporate interest and private interest…


EVAN TRACEY: Right. That’s the one, that sort of the latest rule change, which has both changed how the money gets in and the timing of when these campaigns and these groups can spend it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, what are these groups spending their money on? You track advertising. Is all of this money going into television?

EVAN TRACEY: The majority of the Republican money right now is going into television. And it’s not just regular TV ads. It’s negative ads.

About 90 percent of all these ads right now have been negative ads, so they’re adding an awful lot of help, both on the message side for campaigns, but also on the tonnage side.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, and speaking of negative ads, let’s look at a couple. First, this is an ad run by American Crossroads. This is a conservative group.

They ran it against, have been running it against Robin Carnahan, who is running for the Senate in the state of Missouri.


NARRATOR: New ads by Robin Carnahan. The reviews are in: false, phony, misleading. Robin Carnahan, co-starring in an Obama-Pelosi production winner best fiction for saying her opponent received the most from lobbyists, but not true. The Star says Carnahan know better.

Robin Carnahan, too dishonest, too liberal, two thumbs down.

Crossroads GPS is responsible for the content of this advertising.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How typical of that is — is that of other Crossroads ads?

EVAN TRACEY: It’s very typical. The one thing that Crossroads has done is, they have basically operated like a party. They have been in mostly Senate races.

And a lot of their ads are either reinforcing themes that are already in the race — in this case, you hear a lot about Obama and Pelosi. You’re also seeing that in a number of other Senate races. But what they’re also doing is kind of helping Roy Blunt, the Republican in that race, by introducing some — basically some counterattack ads.

So, they’re being helpful in both the amount of money, but also in the messages that they’re able to run.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And the spending that they’re doing in these states, Evan, how does it compare to what the candidates themselves are spending?

EVAN TRACEY: Well, certainly, in some cases, you’re seeing the groups spending more than candidates right now.

You’re seeing this a lot in the House races, especially with — Republican groups are sometimes the only ones on the air. One of the things these groups are doing is kind of filling in the gaps, because Democrats have more money at the party right now. And they have more money because they have more incumbents.

So, one of the things that this money is really doing is starting to fill in and almost be a bridge loan for some of these candidates that are challengers and don’t have as much money as incumbents. So, it’s a big help.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let’s look over at the Democratic side and look at one of these — now, this is a Democratic-leaning outside group, This is an ad they ran against — it’s an anti ad — against…


JUDY WOODRUFF: … Rand Paul in the state of Kentucky for the Senate.

NARRATOR: They say you can judge a person by the company they keep. Well, Senate candidate Rand Paul is getting hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of help from the Chamber of Commerce, a group recently accused of tax fraud for diverting money meant for charity toward their partisan agenda, tax breaks for the wealthy, denying Americans better health care, and cutting jobs for teachers and first-responders, all to benefit their millionaire friends on Wall Street.

If Rand Paul is on their side, do you think he would be on yours?

NARRATOR: MoveOn Political Action is responsible for the contents of this advertisement.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, how similar is that ad to other ads you’re seeing on the left?

EVAN TRACEY: Well, you know, what’s interesting about theirs, there are not that many of these groups right now that are doing much work for these Democrat Senate candidates right now.

Here’s one example. But, again, they’re talking about the Chamber. In other words, it’s very process-oriented, the message, right now. And I think you’re seeing that a lot from Democrats this fall, is that they’re really trying to focus on process, campaign finance, and having a hard time kind of linking this back into policy.

So, it certainly helps in a race like Kentucky, which is going to be very close, to have this outside money coming to their aid, but there’s really not a lot of examples of this for Democrats right now in these Senate and House races.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And — and, so, in other words, around the country, you’re not seeing a consistent theme everywhere?

EVAN TRACEY: And no. That’s the thing. With the Republican groups, it’s very consistent. They’re trying to find new ways to say Obama and Pelosi.

The Democrat groups are trying to find issues that they can exploit in individual races. But just on the Senate, Republican groups have run ads in 18 different Senate races this year, Democrats in nine. In the House, Republicans have been in over 60 races, democrats in just over six right now.

So, you’re really not seeing the groups do very much work for Democrats in these House and Senate races.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just quickly, Evan, you were telling me that in the governors’s races, there’s a little more parity.

EVAN TRACEY: Yes, much different story when you look at governor’s races. There are a lot more Democratic groups active in spending. And that is very much in parity to how the Republican groups are spending in some of these close governor’s races that are coming up this fall.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, finally, your take on this — the Democratic complaint about non-disclosed donors contributing to these outside groups on the Republican side.

EVAN TRACEY: Yes, it’s new rules. And I think, almost in like a basketball game where you see the coaches working the referees, this is what the Democrats are trying to do. They’re trying to work the referee — in this case, that’s the media and the voters — in hopes that maybe they will get a foul call a little bit closer to Election Day.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you were saying that DNC ad we saw earlier may never see…


EVAN TRACEY: Yes, again, the timing of that was really for the Sunday shows and to get that in. We haven’t seen it actually paid for and aired anywhere.

Now, again, it’s a holiday weekend, so we might start seeing that come Tuesday, Wednesday. But, so far, again, they’re really trying to play up the process right now and kind of staying away from some of the policy issues.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we in the news media tend to pick those things up, don’t we?


EVAN TRACEY: Well, that’s for you to say, Judy.



JUDY WOODRUFF: Evan Tracey, thanks very much.

EVAN TRACEY: Great to be here. Thanks.