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PAC-ing Heat

Clinton and Obama fire off misleading claims about lobbyists and PAC contributions.


Summary

In their most recent TV ads Clinton and Obama attempt to convince Pennsylvania voters that the other is financed by lobbyists and special interests. Both ads miss the mark.

  • Clinton’s ad accuses Obama of insincerely promising to accept no money from PACs and current lobbyists for his presidential campaign. But she cites money he took years ago as a candidate for the Illinois state Senate and U.S. Senate, before he swore off such funds. And while she points to three lobbyists who are in some way associated with Obama’s campaign, she fails to note that all work in state capitals on state issues, far from Washington or the White House.
  • Obama’s response correctly points out that Clinton has accepted more money from PACs and lobbyists for her presidential effort than any other candidate of either party. But then he goes on to accuse her of "eleventh hour smears, paid for by lobbyist money." In fact, only about 1 percent of all Clinton’s funds have come from PACs or from current or former lobbyists, making the claim that her ads are financed by "lobbyist money" about 99 percent untrue.

Clinton and Obama each have raised far more money than previous candidates for president from either party, with little (in Clinton’s case) or none (in Obama’s case) coming from PACs and active federal lobbyists. For either to accuse the other of being financed by special-interest money is, to put the matter kindly, misleading.

Analysis

As the Pennsylvania primary (finally) draws near, Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have released a barrage of new attack ads. In the most recent (so far) installment, Clinton accused Obama of talking a good game about getting tough on lobbyists despite having accepted almost $2 million from lobbyists and political action committees (PACs). Obama fired right back, charging that Clinton has taken more money from lobbyists and PACs than any other candidate and accusing Clinton of running "eleventh hour smears" that are "paid for with lobbyist money." We find both ads to be distortions.

[TET ]

Hillary for President TV Ad: "Talk and Action"

Narrator: The difference between talk and action?

Obama: I don’t take money from oil companies or Washington lobbyists.

Narrator: But in the last 10 years, Barack Obama has taken almost $2 million from lobbyists, corporations and PACs.

Narrator: The head of his New Hampshire campaign is a drug company lobbyist. In Indiana, an energy lobbyist. A casino lobbyist in Nevada. And Obama’s attacking Hillary?

Narrator: She’ll get rid of billions in corporate tax breaks and use that money to create jobs and rebuild the middle class. That’s leadership you can count on.

Clinton: I’m Hillary Clinton and I approve this message. [/TET]


Moving the Goalposts
 

Obama has made his pledge not to accept money from lobbyists or PACs one of the centerpieces of his presidential campaign, and it’s one that he has insisted on since the early days of his run. But Clinton’s ad notes that Obama hasn’t always held to such a pledge, saying, "In the last 10 years, Barack Obama has taken almost $2 million from lobbyists, corporations and PACs." First off, the true figure is $1.74 million, according to the Clinton campaign’s own citations. Rounding that up to "almost $2 million" is a stretch. More to the point, the number counts mostly money that Obama raised for his U.S.  Senate and Illinois state Senate races, long before he made his presidential pledge. The Clinton campaign figures stretch back to Obama’s 1996 state Senate race, which actually is 12 years ago, not 10 as the ad claims.

And if sauce for the gander is also sauce for the goose, Clinton’s record is open to even stronger criticism. Clinton, who didn’t begin fundraising until 1999, has accepted $1.4 million from lobbyists and $4.2 million from PACs, more than triple the amount taken in by Obama.

Obama did in fact raise $1.2 million from PACs for his 2004 U.S. Senate race.  Obama did not pledge to refuse money from lobbyists or PACs during his previous campaigns. In addition, the Boston Globe reports that Obama raised about $296,000 from corporations, labor unions, lobbyists and PACs during his 1996, 1998 and 2002 Illinois state Senate races. (We’ve pointed out before that it is illegal for federal candidates to accept funds from corporations. Illinois, however, does allow candidates for state office to accept money from labor unions and corporations.)

During his presidential run, Obama has raised $115,163 from "lobbyists," as of March 20, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. The Obama campaign states that this is all from former lobbyists, not those currently active. That distinction is important for Obama. As we’ve written before, Obama is doing a bit of a tightrope act here. He does not accept funds from registered federal lobbyists, but he does accept money from spouses of lobbyists, non-lobbying partners who work for lobbying firms or for law firms that do lobbying, ex-lobbyists, and state lobbyists.

Clinton is within her rights to point to Obama’s past acceptance of money from lobbyists and special interests. But viewers shouldn’t take that as evidence that he has broken his promise. We’ve seen no evidence that Obama is not adhering to the letter of his pledge.

Not the White House Lobby
 

The Clinton ad also accuses Obama of having lobbyists associated with his state campaigns. The head of Obama’s New Hampshire campaign, it says, is a drug company lobbyist. It goes on: "In Indiana, an energy lobbyist. A casino lobbyist in Nevada." Could it really be that Obama won’t take money from lobbyists, but is happy to put them to work on his campaign?

Not exactly. None of these men is a federal lobbyist. All are exclusively state-level lobbyists working far from Washington. Obama’s New Hampshire co-chair, Jim Demers, was the subject of a few headlines back in January when Clinton first pointed out his line of business. Demers does indeed head up The Demers Group, a New Hampshire-based lobbying firm. In Nevada, Obama’s steering committee included Billy Vassiliadis, the CEO of R&R Partners, which does lobbying work on behalf of casinos. And in Indiana, Obama campaign adviser Kipper Tew has lobbying clients that include an energy company.

Demers does all of his lobbying with the New Hampshire Legislature. Vassiliadis’ lobbying stays in Vegas – or Reno, anyway. And Tew lobbies the Indiana legislature, but he doesn’t lobby at the federal level. And when we spoke with Tew, he told us that he is a volunteer member of Obama’s "senior advisory council" but doesn’t run the Indiana campaign, as one might conclude from the vague wording of the Clinton ad. We asked the Obama campaign to confirm the status of Demers, Vassiliadis and Tew, but we received no response.

It’s not our job to judge whether it’s appropriate or not for a presidential candidate to use state lobbyists to chair or advise his or her campaign in the states. But what Obama promised was not to take money from "Washington lobbyists," and it’s misleading for Clinton to imply otherwise.

Obama Strikes Back Out
 

Obama pushed back with a misleading ad of his own accusing Clinton of launching "the most misleading and negative ad of the campaign." It says Obama takes "not one dime" from Washington lobbyists and says newspapers called Clinton’s attacks "the old politics."

[TET ]

Obama for President TV Ad: "Old Politics"

Obama: I’m Barack Obama and I approve this message.

Narrator: Newspapers call Hillary Clinton’s negative attacks “the old politics.” And now, in the final hours, she’s launched the most misleading and negative ad of the campaign.

Narrator: Barack Obama doesn’t take money from special interest PACs or Washington lobbyists. Not one dime.

Narrator: But federal records show Clinton’s raised millions from PACs and lobbyists. More than any candidate in either party.

Narrator: Eleventh hour smears, paid for by lobbyist money. Isn’t that exactly what we need to change? [/TET]

It is true that one newspaper did call Clinton’s attacks "the old politics." But it’s also true that Obama has taken $115,163 from former federal lobbyists, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That’s a lot of dimes.

More misleading, though, is Obama’s charge that Clinton’s ads are being paid for with lobbyist money. While it is true, as we’ve said before, that Clinton has collected more money from PACs and lobbyists than any other candidate, the numbers aren’t really all that big in relation to her overall fundraising.  Clinton’s donations from both individual lobbyists (past and present) and from PACs account for just 1.1 percent of all the funds she has raised. That makes Obama’s claim that lobbyists are funding Clinton’s attacks about 98.9 percent false.

We agree that there’s some "eleventh-hour" smearing going on. But the mud is flying in both directions.

– by Joe Miller and Emi Kolawole

Sources

Editorial Board. "Barack Obama: Democrats Deserve a Nominee for Change." 16 April 2008. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 21 April 2008.

Helman, Scott. "PACs and Lobbyists Aided Obama’s Rise." 9 August 2007. The Boston Globe. 21 April 2008.

Mosk, Matthew and John Solomon. "Obama Taps Two Worlds To Fill 2008 War Chest." 15 April 2007. The Washington Post. 21 April 2008.

Oliphant, James. "Obama Anti-Lobbyist Stand Isn’t Without Blurry Edges." 10 February 2008. The Chicago Tribune. 21 April 2008.

Opensecrets.org. "2008 Presidential Race: Contributions from Selected Industries." Center for Responsive Politics, 20 March 2008, accessed 21 April 2008.

Pindell, James. "Lobbyist/Obama NH Chair Enters National Conversation." 6 January 2008. The Boston Globe. 21 April 2008.

R&R Partners. R&R Partners: People. 21 March 2008. 21 April 2008.

Solomon, John. "No Ban on Lobbyists as Advisers for Obama." 7 January 2008. The Washington Post. 21 April 2008.

The Demers Group. The Demers Group Homepage. 24 December 2002. 21 April 2008.

"U.S. Lobby Registration & Reporting Disclosure Page." 21 April 2008. United States Senate. 21 April 2008.