Obama Ground Game: State Parties Flush With Cash In Swing States

(Originally published at The Huffington Post on October 24, 2012.)

ARLINGTON, Va. — On a warm Tuesday night in late October, the Organizing for America office in south Arlington, Va., is humming with activity. In a square, two-floor office space with a glass window facing a busy suburban street, more than a dozen Virginians are seated at fold-out tables, phoning voters and asking them to support President Barack Obama’s bid for a second term.

Lakisha Jeffries, a volunteer neighborhood team leader, shows up at the Arlington office two to three nights a week to help turn out the strong base of support in the northern Virginia counties that went heavily for the president in 2008. That means getting them to the polls, putting an absentee ballot in their hands and reminding supporters — over and over again — that they need to show up and vote.

"Talking to people, getting them out, remind them, making sure they have a plan; because that’s important," Jeffries said. "Sometimes people don’t know what day the election is and when to vote. They let it pass them by because life’s so busy and that’s why I think it’s really important for us to be knocking on their door."

Across the state of Virginia, where polls show a tight race between Obama and his Republican rival Mitt Romney, there are dozens of these offices where Obama supporters can organize, make phone calls, collect materials and gather to go canvassing to get out the vote (GOTV) for the president. In a Wednesday conference call, Obama national field director Jeremy Bird touted the Virginia GOTV operation, “We’ve registered more voters than in 2008, knocked on more doors and talked to more people.”

This is what the much discussed ground game looks like at the bottom floor. The operation might look inexpensive — especially compared to the billion dollar television ad war waged by the campaigns and super PACs — but it’s not. The ground game requires paid staff to organize volunteers (the Arlington office boasts five, according to the Obama for America-Virginia web site), lots of cell phones, pamphlets, door-hangers, lawn signs, fuel for transportation, direct mail and — as was evident at the Arlington office on Tuesday night — pizza.

Super PACs, Outside Money Influenced, But Didn’t Buy The 2012 Election

(Originally published by The Huffington Post on November 7, 2012.)

WASHINGTON — Independent conservative groups are going to have to come to terms with the fact that they spent more than $700 million — 70 percent of all of the reported independent spending in the 2012 election — and walked away with little to show for it.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was supported by outside groups that outspent allies of President Barack Obama by $260 million. And yet he still lost.

This ultimately raises the question of whether the much-feared independent spending unleashed by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling was a dud. After all that money spent by independent groups largely financed by billionaires and millionaires, the government looks almost identical to the way it did before. Obama remains president, the Senate is firmly Democratic and the Republicans control the House.

As it turns out, you can’t buy a different electorate, or a better candidate, no matter how much money you throw at it.

From the evidence provided by the past two years of outside spending in the presidential race, you can, however, buy a bit of anarchy, a certain amount of time and a megaphone that only really works when it is joined with a compelling narrative.

Super PAC Ad Men Have Long History Of Republican Attack Politics

(Originally published by The Huffington Post on March 8, 2012.)

WASHINGTON — The 2012 Republican presidential primary campaign has been the most negative in recent memory. The main culprits are well-funded super PACs, which have plastered the airwaves with attack ads.

So far this election cycle, the major super PACs supporting GOP candidates Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul have spent more than $57 million on the campaign, largely on television ads. Most of those ads — 72 percent, as of Feb. 20 — have been negative, according to Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group.

"What we’re finding is that most of the ads run by super PACs are negative," said Washington State University professor Travis Ridout, a member of the Wesleyan Media Project, which also tracks campaign advertising.

Super PACs are, by their nature, built for negative advertising. Operating at arm’s length from the official campaigns, they can run attacks that their favored candidate would rather not have attached to his name. They carry innocuous-sounding names like Restore Our Future and the Red, White and Blue Fund, and require a curious voter to pore over campaign records to determine the sources of their money.

The creative minds behind the super PAC ads are often even more difficult to identify.

Super PACs Dominate Iowa Caucus, Helping Mitt Romney Run Ahead

(Originally published by The Huffington Post on December 31, 2011.)

WASHINGTON — “This is politics,” Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney declared Dec. 21, dismissing calls for him to condemn ads attacking former House Speaker Newt Gingrich that were run by an independent group supporting Romney’s candidacy.

The ads were part of an unprecedented $3.3 million negative campaign of television spots and direct mail by Restore Our Future, an independent expenditure-only committee or super PAC, which blunted Gingrich’s rise and may very well be the main ingredient in an Iowa victory for Romney next Tuesday.

Never before have the Iowa caucuses seen such a campaign by any group other than a candidate committee. And with days to go before Iowans cast their votes, the new political landscape is coming into sharper focus.

Fully aware of the bazooka he had in his back pocket, Romney on Friday jetted off to New Hampshire to campaign for the primary election there, casually planning a return to the Hawkeye State on Saturday afternoon. Calm and assured that his campaign would keep on going past Iowa, he put an op-ed in the State newspaper in South Carolina and spent the morning taking shots at President Barack Obama in a variety of interviews. Opponents were left grappling for third place in Tuesday night’s vote.

Finish reading…

The Counter-Reformation: The Fall of Campaign Finance Reform

(Originally published by The Huffington Post on September 27, 2011.)

WASHINGTON — In the first two weeks of January 2006, the Senate Judiciary Committee held confirmation hearings for President George W. Bush’s second nominee to the Supreme Court, Samuel Alito. By replacing Justice Sandra Day O’Connor with Alito, Bush was replacing the Court’s swing vote with a reliable conservative. This move would affect countless issues, but one that never came up during those confirmation hearings, campaign finance reform, would wind up the defining issue of Alito’s early years on the Court.

In decision after decision with Alito on board, the Supreme Court has gutted a large part of the campaign finance regulation system set up in the 1970s. The 2007 Wisconsin Right to Life v. Federal Election Commission (FEC) created a loophole in the 2002 campaign finance reform law known as McCain-Feingold allowing corporations and unions to run certain types of election ads, but that decision stopped short of allowing unlimited spending to go toward what is known as express advocacy, calls for the election or defeat of an opponent.

This loophole was blown open by the 2010 ruling in the Citizens United v. FEC case, essentially creating a separate, deregulated sphere for non-party and non-candidate groups to spend and raise money from corporations, unions and individuals as they saw fit.

In 2011, the Court invalidated a public financing law in Arizona that provided matching funds to candidates whose opponents were spending their own money.

Other lower court cases are percolating up and could provide other opportunities for further gutting of the campaign finance regulation system.

Super PACs And Secret Money: The Unregulated Shadow Campaign

(This article was originally published by The Huffington Post on September 26, 2011.)

WASHINGTON — In the span of a week in September, two independent political committees announced unheard-of fundraising plans for the coming campaign season. The Karl Rove-linked American Crossroads, along with its sister nonprofit, Crossroads GPS, announced a plan to raise and spend $240 million in 2012. Make Us Great Again, a group solely dedicated to electing Texas Gov. Rick Perry the 45th President of the United States, revealed a plan to spend $55 million in the Republican primary alone. Both of these multimillion dollar plans would break all reported records for spending by an independent political committee, and offer a sign of how campaign finance rules have been upended.

The federal system of campaign finance is in the midst of a sea change following the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC), which undid a host of regulations covering the use of corporate and union money by independent groups in elections. Those independent groups are forming a shadow campaign apparatus fueled by unlimited and often undisclosed contributions, without the same accountability required of political parties or candidates’ own political action committees.

American Crossroads and Make Us Great Again represent one of the two new kinds of groups playing in the shadow campaign: super PACs, independent political committees filed with the FEC that can accept unlimited funds from corporations, unions and individuals.

In their debut election cycle in 2010, super PACs, like American Crossroads, spent a combined $65.3 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. This was part of a huge surge in spending by non-party groups, whose spending hit $304 million in 2010, a record for any election cycle — presidential or midterm.

Finish reading…

MSNBC’s Countdown with Keith Olbermann had a segment about campaign spending that used data and a visualization from an article I penned for the Sunlight Foundation.

CNN’s The Situation Room has a piece on the on-again, off-again U.S.-Libya relationship that interviews Sunlight Foundation senior writer Paul Blumenthal on the lobbying relationship between the U.S. and Libya.

MSNBC: Are Super PACs a potent political weapon?

The Huffington Post’s Paul Blumenthal explains why Citizens United was the big winner of the Iowa Caucuses.

Watch the full interview…

MSNBC: Bad Economy ‘BOUGHT’ By Greed

Paul Blumenthal from the Huffington Post helps explain the areas where “greedy bastard” behavior is damaging the American economy with a new acronym: BOUGHT (banks, oil, universities, government, health care, and trade).

Watch the full interview…