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Super PACs Wage Political Ad Wars with Hundreds of Thousands of TV Spots

October 15, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Judy Woodruff reports on the candidates' preparation for what many expect to be a high stakes presidential debate in Hempstead, N.Y., while Ray Suarez and NPR's Peter Overby examine how September campaign ad spending has been boosted by hundreds of thousands of television commercials funded by Super PACs.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: President Obama and Mitt Romney spent this day getting ready for their second debate, where questions will come directly from voters. As they did, new polls underscored what’s riding on the outcome.

From the Obama and Romney camps came signs of just how high the stakes will be tomorrow night. Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan talked up the coming confrontation as he campaigned in Cincinnati.

REP. PAUL RYAN, R-Wis.: These debates are giving us the ability to cut through the clutter and give people a very clear choice. That’s what we’re offering.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

JUDY WOODRUFF: And President Obama issued a new fund-raising appeal, saying this race is tied. A new ABC News/Washington Post poll of likely voters found the president led 49 percent to 46 percent. But that was within the margin of error.

And the poll found Romney now leads in the level of enthusiasm among his supporters. The president hoped to reverse that trend as he hunkered down in Williamsburg, Va., to prepare.

On Sunday, his top adviser, David Axelrod, told FOX News that Mr. Obama will make some adjustments to the approach he took in the first debate.

DAVID AXELROD, Obama Campaign: I mean, we saw Gov. Romney — Gov. Romney sort of serially walk away from his own proposals. And, certainly, the president is going to be willing to challenge him on it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mitt Romney was doing his debate homework in Boston, but adviser Ed Gillespie told CNN on Sunday that he expects a different President Obama on Tuesday, up to a point.

ED GILLESPIE, Romney Campaign: Well, the president can change his style, he can change his tactics. He can’t change his record and he can’t change his policies. And that’s what this election is about.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The candidates face off tomorrow night at HofstraUniversity in Hempstead, N.Y.

RAY SUAREZ: Late today, Mitt Romney announced he raised more than $170 million in September, and said his campaign and the Republican National Committee had $191 million in the bank at the end of the month. Those efforts were boosted by spending from outside groups.

According to NewsHour partner Kantar Media CMAG, groups opposing the president and supporting Romney in the general election have run record numbers of television commercials. That’s more than 41,000 spots from American Crossroads, 72,000 spots from Crossroads GPS, more than 43,000 spots from Americans for Prosperity, and 45,000 spots from the Restore Our Future super PAC.

Backing President Obama, the super PAC Priorities USA Action was the only Democratic-affiliated group to come close. Priorities has run nearly 40,000 spots.

Here are the two spots with the most money behind them from each campaign.

WOMAN: I’m an independent. I voted for him. I contributed to him. Gov. Romney promised that he would bring jobs to this state. By the time Gov. Romney left office, we had fallen to 47th in the nation in terms of job growth.

Gov. Romney cares about big business, he cares about tax cuts for wealthy people. And I certainly do not believe that he cares about my hardworking employees.

I feel like I was duped by Mitt Romney. I’m going to vote for President Obama.

NARRATOR: Priorities USA Action is responsible for the content of this advertising.

NARRATOR: This is what President Obama said the jobless rate would be if we pass a stimulus: 5.6 percent. But this is what the jobless rate actually is: 8.1 percent.

The difference? About 3.7 million jobs. Obama’s spending drove us $5 trillion deeper in debt. And now we have fewer jobs than when he started. What Obama promised vs. what he delivered.

NARRATOR: American Crossroads is responsible for the content of this advertising.

RAY SUAREZ: The NewsHour is working with CMAG and NPR for this series of reports examining advertising spending.

Joining us now is NPR correspondent Peter Overby, who took a look at super PACs.

And for almost 20 years, you have been covering the way money drives politics in America. A lot of money is being spent this time around. How much? Do we know?

PETER OVERBY, National Public Radio: Well, the group of ads that we looked at, all the broadcast ads from April through the first week of October, about a half billion dollars worth of ads, which is just phenomenal.

RAY SUAREZ: Roughly equally by the two campaigns, or is one outspending the other?

PETER OVERBY: The Obama campaign and its allies are somewhat outspending the Romney campaign and its allies, but by — not by that much.

RAY SUAREZ: The independent groups, have they been coordinating ad buys with each other? They can’t talk to the campaigns. But they’re allowed to talk to each other. Has that made a difference?

PETER OVERBY: Yes.

The independent group action is almost entirely on the Republican side. That’s because the Romney campaign had lean months, and the independent groups with their unlimited contributions coming in were able to make up for that.

The best example of the coordination was between Crossroads GPS and Americans For Prosperity.

They basically were trading weeks. One would be on the air for a few weeks and then the other would be on the air for a few weeks.

And the result was that they almost always had at least a million dollars worth of ads running, sometimes much more than that, at a time when the Romney campaign was essentially off the air.

RAY SUAREZ: So they were able to maintain the Romney campaign’s presence even when Gov. Romney was having trouble raising money for his campaign.

PETER OVERBY: Exactly.

And both these groups are 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations. That means that they don’t disclose their donors. So, this is a significant amount of money in a presidential campaign that is coming from unidentified donors.

RAY SUAREZ: Is there a difference in what’s being stressed? Because Karl Rove is one kind of political mind and the Koch brothers have a different agenda.

When you look at the ads, is there a different flavor to the two sets of appeals?

PETER OVERBY: Not so much.

Yes, the Crossroads organization is really staffed with people who are interested in furthering the Republican Party’s goals. And the Koch brothers — Americans For Prosperity is a Koch brothers organization, grassroots, heavy emphasis on economic issues.

But — and they’re often rivals, these two groups. But here they are united in attacking Obama. All the ads they have done have been attack ads.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, there’s a whole different infrastructure that stands around different kinds of money. If you give money to a party, it’s one kind of money. If you give money to one of these groups, it’s another kind of money. If you give money directly to a campaign, it’s another kind.

With most of the independent spending being on the Romney side and most of the party and campaign spending being on the Obama side, is there an advantage or a disadvantage to having a lot of one kind of money and not so much of another?

PETER OVERBY: There’s a definite advantage.

About — on the Democratic side, about 91 percent of the spending has been by the Obama campaign itself. That shows you partly how weak the outside groups are on the Democratic side.

But, also, it shows the success of the Obama fundraising operation, with the small donors they can keep going back to again and again.

When — Romney’s problem was that he didn’t have a lot of small donors. He tended to get donors who maxed out, gave the maximum the first time that they contributed. So he had to find new donors.

The outside groups make up for that because they can raise these unlimited contributions. Super PACs disclose their contributions, their contributors. The 501(c)(4) groups do not. But, you know, you have groups supporting Romney that have received $10 million contributions.

RAY SUAREZ: So, once you max out, arguably on the Romney campaign side, you can pivot and start giving money to one of the independent groups, right?

PETER OVERBY: Yes, yes.

And you can see that in the contribution records to Restore Our Future, the pro-Romney super PAC, which, again, has to disclose its donors. Romney donors that are giving to the (c)(4)s, we don’t know.

RAY SUAREZ: Peter Overby, good to see you. Thanks.

PETER OVERBY: Thanks. I’m glad to be here.

RAY SUAREZ: You can listen to Peter’s reports and see our examination of the spending data on our website.