Political Parties and Third-Party Groups Discuss Their Roles in Campaign ’08
Release Date: December 12, 2008
Contact: Brooks Jackson, director, FactCheck.org, at 202-879-6700
Viveca Novak, deputy director, FactCheck.org at 202-879-6700
Dec. 12, 2008 (Washington, D.C.) – Representatives from the Republican National Committee, the Democratic National Committee and several liberal and conservative groups spoke today at the Newseum about their efforts to influence voters in the 2008 election. Tens of millions of dollars were spent by the political parties and outside groups to try to convince voters to back Barack Obama or John McCain.
The communications specialists and political strategists, brought together for a conference sponsored by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania and FactCheck.org, discussed the effectiveness of their advertising, direct mail pieces and phone calls. Liberal/Democratic groups at the event were the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; Planned Parenthood Action Fund; and Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund. Conservative/Republican groups included Freedom’s Watch and the National Republican Trust PAC, a group that sprung up in late September. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the APPC, welcomed participants to the event, which was moderated by FactCheck.org Director Brooks Jackson.
Full audio and video of the event will be posted today at http://factcheck.org/on-message. A transcript will be posted Monday.
C-SPAN coverage is available here.
The Political Parties’ Strategy
Rich Beeson, political director of the Republican National Committee, kicked off the conference by joking that this type of post-election analysis “was a lot more fun in 2004 than it is right now.” Beeson showed some of the hybrid ads the RNC ran in conjunction with McCain’s campaign, such as one that claimed Obama “rewards his friends with your tax dollars” and then switched to a claim that “congressional liberals promise to raise your taxes to reward their friends with wasteful pork.”
The RNC and the campaign were allowed to split the cost 50-50 for these ads, which featured McCain’s message melded with attacks on “congressional liberals” from the RNC. Beeson acknowledged that the “congressional liberals” line is a bit “amorphous” and not as effective as a straight McCain campaign spot, which he called “the cleanest and the best spots” to run. But, he repeatedly emphasized, Obama’s camp raised a total of $746 million in the primary and general campaigns, so the Republicans had to do everything they could to maximize their money. Hybrid ads injected about 50 million more ad dollars into the election. “Hybrid ads gave us an ability to stretch out our ad buys, to essentially double … the number of spots by splitting the cost,” Beeson said.
Karen Finney, the Democratic National Committee’s director of communications, said her party focused not on television ads – in fact, the DNC only ran two TV spots in the primary and none in the general – but it spent energy and resources building a network of everyday citizens to serve as ambassadors for Obama. DNC Chairman Howard Dean, she said, felt that the impact of television advertising was diminishing and that “voters are more likely to respond to information that comes from a trusted source.” Finney also noted research that showed 33 percent of households would have a DVR by the end of 2008 and that 88 percent of people who had a DVR, such as TiVo, skip commercials.
The DNC built an online tool called “Neighbor-to-Neighbor,” or N2N, to engage activists, giving them messages from the candidates, a list of neighbors to contact via phone or in person, a map and route to take, and even a script to follow. “We essentially deputized individual citizens to be our messengers and carry our message,” Finney said.
Finney noted that the Democrats were trumped by the GOP in 2004 in this type of grassroots campaigning. This year was different. She said 26 percent of voters were contacted by Obama’s campaign during the campaign, compared with 19 percent who were contacted by the McCain campaign. Between August and Election Day, she said, there were more than 125,000 active users of N2N who made more than 6 million phone calls or personal visits to their neighbors. The system also encouraged micro-campaigns for women, veterans and other sub-groups.
Beeson said the large amount of money raised by Obama in the campaign meant McCain and the Republicans weren’t on even footing. Finney countered that money wasn’t everything: There was also a strategy in play of expanding the electoral map and the number of ways Obama could get to 270 electoral votes. “It wasn’t just the money. It was the strategy,” she said. “The strategy mattered a lot.”
Liberal Groups Saw Opportunity
“Fill a lane, and do no harm,” was the maxim for the independent spending arm of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), according to Ricky Feller, who led that program for the labor union: Identify an area where the candidate may need help, and make sure your efforts don’t backfire for him or her. Feller, AFSCME’s associate director for political action, spoke as part of the Democratic/liberal panel at the conference.
Feller said that through polling and other early research the union picked New Mexico and Wisconsin as states where it could have an impact with ads critical of McCain. In New Mexico, it found, Obama was running poorly with Latinos compared with where Al Gore stood at the same point in 2000. Using focus groups, AFSCME found that it could move some Latinos, particularly men, to Obama with a message attacking McCain for votes on veterans’ issues – hence the “Veterans” ad it ran in that state with the tag line, “John McCain: Wrong on veterans.”
In Wisconsin, AFSCME targeted seniors with an ad slamming McCain’s position on Social Security.
Larry Scanlon, AFSCME’s director of political action, oversaw the larger voter contact effort and worked closely with the AFL-CIO. AFSCME’s effort on behalf of Obama included sending 455 staffers into 17 battleground states and making 17 million phone calls. The AFL sent out 56.7 million pieces of direct mail, according to Scanlon, and distributed 28.8 million workplace flyers. AFSCME itself spent $84.2 million on politics in this election, counting both hard money (political action committee dollars) and soft (from the union’s treasury), Scanlon said. One way to measure success: While early polling in February showed that McCain was viewed favorably by about the same percentage of union members and the overall public (57 percent and 58 percent, respectively), union members eventually went for Obama by a margin of 67-30, versus 51-47 for all voters.
Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said that through polling last February the group learned that many women thought of McCain as a moderate but 75 percent couldn’t identify where he stood on women’s health issues, including reproductive rights. “When women learned he opposed [Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision giving women a legal right to abortion], their support dropped very quickly,” Richards said. Hence the group’s mission became to “educate women in battleground states that John McCain was not pro-choice.” Planned Parenthood Action Fund ran four ads targeted to viewers of shows such as “Oprah,” “Project Runway” and “Army Wives.” Its “Viagra” ad, which shows McCain being stumped by a reporter’s question on health insurance companies’ reimbursement policies for drugs like Viagra versus women’s contraceptives, received substantial free airtime thanks to the news media.
McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate gave Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund an opening to get involved in the presidential race, said the group’s CEO, Rodger Schlickeisen – but it had very little money to work with, having devoted most of its ad budget to congressional races. “We had about $35,000, and it cost about $5-6,000 to make the ad” that Defenders decided to produce on Palin’s support for aerial killing of wolves in Alaska. The group did some small buys on stations in Ohio and put the ad online – and it caught fire. “We raised over $1 million on the Internet” because of the spot, Schlickeisen said, “which we used to run it in six battleground states.” “Wolves” was considered one of the most effective ads of the campaign – as judged partly by the way Palin’s position on the issue became part of the popular culture. Just ask Tina Fey.
Rise and Fall of Conservative Groups
The election of a Democrat may have meant good news for at least one independent conservative group, while another at the conference said stock market woes had led to its demise. Scott Wheeler, executive director of the National Republican Trust PAC, said his group, which raised $10 million after popping up in late September, was continuing to raise money. Meanwhile, Freedom’s Watch, a group backed by former Bush administration officials such as Ari Fleischer and Bradley Blakeman, will shut down its operations, said Ed Patru, vice president for communications. “A lot of our donors have to make tough decisions,” Patru said. And with the downturn in the economy, it “became increasingly difficult to raise money that we needed to be viable and effective.”
Freedom’s Watch, which was founded last year, ran congressional ads and stayed out of the presidential election. “We were interested in impacting the issues debate, not getting candidates elected,” said Patru, whose organization is a 501(c)4. Freedom’s Watch ads focused on the Iraq war and the surge (with a $15 million ad buy in 2007), and then shifted to energy and taxes, as Iraq moved off the front pages.
Patru, who said his group spent $30 million on TV ads, showed two serious spots at the conference: one that boasted of Georgia Rep. Saxby Chambliss’ record on lower taxes, and another that claimed Democrat Jeff Merkley in Oregon backed higher taxes on small businesses. Another spot that was more comical, and which Patru called “the most famous or infamous ad,” featured an aging hippie and his smoke-filled van and charged that Rep. Mark Udall of Colorado, who was running for Senate, wanted to create a “Department of Peace.”
The two ads from Wheeler’s group, however, were more infamous. The National Republican Trust PAC first released a spot in several battleground states claiming Obama had a plan to give driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants and that the 9/11 hijackers’ plot “depended” on their ability to get driver’s licenses. Wheeler said the group was “taken to the woodshed” for that ad (by, among others, FactCheck.org – in fact, FactCheck.org found fault with ads from nearly all of the groups represented at the conference). But the ad that Wheeler’s group aired more often was one featuring Obama’s former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Wheeler called it “the ad that I think most Republicans thought McCain should have been running himself.” The fact that McCain wouldn’t run such an ad was one important factor in the decision to go forward with it. “Obama had a blank slate. … Someone had to show what has informed [Obama’s] opinion over the years.”
The spot, which ran nationally, proved to be very popular, Wheeler said, citing polling that showed seven in 10 undecided voters who saw the ad went for McCain. “People in the media probably considered the Wright-Obama connection to be way overdone,” he said. But “most people who voted had no idea about Wright and Obama.”
In general, Patru noted, “The public finds negative ads more credible than they do positive ads,” which is why third-party groups are more likely to run attack ads. (And why Patru calls his group’s positive Chambliss ad “a collector’s item.”) He also said that independent groups are more often innovative when their party of choice is out of power. All the brightest minds in the Democratic Party have been working for years in third party groups, he said. Now that control has shifted to the left, conservative will dedicate themselves to making their outside groups more effective, he said.
And because of the rise in early voting, all of the groups may spend even more time trying to influence the presidential election. “The days of the 11th hour surprise attack ads are going fast, if not gone,” said Patru. Early voting “means candidates and third-party groups are going to have to start earlier.” If you thought the last campaign was long, he warned, “wait till four years from now.”
The Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania has been the premier communication policy center in the country since its founding by Ambassadors Walter and Leonore Annenberg in 1993. Through its research, conferences and policy discussions, APPC scholars have addressed the role of communication in politics, adolescent behavior, health care and other important arenas. The APPC accepts no funding from business corporations, labor unions, political parties, lobbying organizations or individuals. It is funded primarily by the Annenberg Foundation.
FactCheck.org, a project of the APPC, is a nonpartisan, nonprofit "consumer advocate" for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics. The site monitors the factual accuracy of what is said by major U.S. political players in the form of TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews and news releases. FactCheck.org is funded by APPC and the Annenberg Foundation.