Never mind all this talk about $10 million donations from casino billionaires to pro-Romney groups and paltry fundraising totals from pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA. Big-money outside groups are really a boon for the president. Or so some misleading accounts would have you believe.
An analysis of FEC expenditure filings by the National Review concluded that Obama was cleaning Romney’s clock based on spending by super PACs, which can accept unlimited donations:
According to Federal Election Commission data filed from January 2011 through July 3, super PACs and all groups making “independent expenditures” in the political arena have spent $35.3 million in opposition to Romney, and only $9 million in opposition to Obama. Rove’s American Crossroads, for example, has spent $3.1 million this cycle. But only $158,126.17 of that has been spent in efforts opposing President Obama, and a separate $7,500 has been spent on Web ads supporting Mitt Romney. For perspective, the group spent $358,202.98 in mid-June in just one expenditure on “TV/Media Purchases” opposing Democratic Senate candidate Tim Kaine in Virginia, and then spent the same sum a week later in the same race.
But fundraisers for conservative outside groups brag they’re on pace to spend $1 billion against Democrats this election cycle — if true, wouldn’t National Review be ignoring a lot of money? It is. Their analysis turns a blind eye to non-profit political “charities,” which don’t have to disclose donors or even much of their ad spending and are already pumping tens of millions into the race.
For example, while the National Review mocks Democrats for making a bogeyman out of American Crossroads, their myopic focus on super PACs leaves out their anonymous money machine sibling, Crossroads GPS. That group spent $24 million on a single ad buy in May, matching the Obama campaign’s first big ad campaign dollar for dollar, and almost single-handedly closing the super PAC gap cited by National Review.
Americans for Prosperity, a non-profit backed by the Koch brothers, recently announced a $9 million ad campaign against the Affordable Care Act. The group and others connected to the Koch family are planning to spend as much as $400 million this election cycle, but by the National Review’s standards, this overwhelmingly anonymous spending doesn’t count since it’s either not made by a super PAC or not explicitly opposed to a candidate. Ditto for the Chamber of Commerce, even though that group is explicitly cited in the National Review piece as an organization Democrats are worried about.
Even super PAC spending on tough ads that don’t directly endorse Romney or tell voters to oppose Obama might not be easy to find without digging into their monthly FEC reports.
“The problem is that we’re seeing the information on spending right now only for ads that are very specific, expressly advocating the defeat of a candidate,” Bob Biersack, senior fellow at the Center for Responsive Politics, told TPM. “But if you’re running what are called ‘issue ads,’ those ‘Call the president and tell him to stop being stupid’ ads … it’s not even disclosed to the FEC.”
Crossroads GPS announced its buy, but more often it’s difficult to find out when other non-profits advertise at all and how much they spent. Republicans in the House are currently trying to block the FCC from requiring that information be posted to the Internet — currently it has to be obtained in-person from TV network offices. That means a review of the FEC is essentially worthless on its own as a measure of outside spending. Only private advertising analysts have a decent idea of how much money is flooding the airwaves.
Bottom line: If it strikes you as implausible that Democrats are winning the outside money race, it’s because they aren’t.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.