Organized interests and well-organized individuals endeavor to shape election-year debate at every stage of the process.
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Election-year debate is not limited to the campaigns and the media.  Organizations advocating on subjects from abortion and the environment to 2nd Amendment rights and taxes mount campaigns big and small to see that their points of view are represented. 

There are myriad ways in which a group can influence the campaign.  At a basic level, a group may opt to run a media campaign using some combination of direct mail, print, radio and/or television ads.  A full-scale, hands-on approach may entail opening an office in a key state such as Iowa or New Hampshire, developing a network of local volunteers and supporters, producing collateral items such as brochures and signs, showing up for candidate events in the area, organizing candidate forums, and so forth. 

There are rules, of course.  Labor unions, corporations and incorporated membership organizations--a category which includes groups ranging from the National Rifle Association to the Sierra Club--are prohibited by federal election campaign laws from making contributions or expenditures in conjunction with federal elections. They can engage in a broad array of nonpartisan political education activities such as distributing voter guides, holding forums, etc.  Further, these organizations can establish separate segregated funds or political action committees which are allowed to make partisan communications to their members. 

After the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA) checked large soft money contributions to the political parties, Section 527 organizations, named after a section of the tax code, emerged as a channel for these funds.  527's can engage in voter mobilization efforts, issue advocacy and other activity short of expressly advocating the election or defeat of a federal candidate.  They are not subject to regulation by the FEC and there are no limits to how much they can raise. 

However, several 527s, including the most famous or infamous of them all, the Swiftboat Veterans, violated the limitations on campaign activity, thereby falling within the jurisdiction of the Federal Election Campaign Act.  They were later forced to pay substantial penalties, albeit two years after the campaign was over.

Finally there are the many tax-exempt groups, including charities and churches, whose status is predicated on their not engaging in partisan activities.  In the 2004 cycle the IRS created an enforcement program to curtail prohibited political activity by these groups.  "We wanted to stop improper activity during — not after — the election cycle," stated IRS Commissioner Mark W. Everson in a February 2006 speech.  The IRS reviewed over 110 charities and churches.  Most of the cases are now closed; the IRS reports that it found many one time violations and a handful of more serious ones.  Among the groups that came under investigation were the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and All Saints Church in Pasadena, California. 

The NAACP charged that the investigation was politically motivated because Chairman of the Board Julian Bond had made remarks critical of the Bush Administration at its national convention in July 2004.  Eventually, in August 2006, the IRS informed the NAACP that it had found that "political intervention did not occur" and that the NAACP would continue "to qualify as an organization described in IRC section 501(c)(3)." 

All Saints Chuch came to the IRS' notice as a result of a sermon titled "If Jesus debated Senator Kerry and President Bush" that the Rev. Dr. George F. Regas, Rector Emeritus, delivered on October 31, 2004.  This investigation was still continuing as of September 2006 and church officials, believing their First Amendment rights were being violated, moved to challenge IRS summons in court.

Advertising Campaigns
Interest group ads affecting the campaign fall into two main categories: independent expenditure ads opposing or supporting a particular candidate and ads that seek to inject specific issues into the debate. 
See FEC: "2008 Independent Expenditure Summaries - Presidential Candidates" 

During the 2004 Democratic primary campaign there were examples of both.  As the Democratic frontrunner, Howard Dean was the target of ads by the Club for Growth PAC portraying him as a tax hiker and of several ads from a group called Americans for Jobs, Health Care & Progressive Values; one which achieved a certain notoriety featured an image of Osama bin Laden and made the charge that, "Howard Dean has no military or foreign policy experience."  Positive ads were rarer, but Take Bake America SEIU ran an ad supporting Dean and the League of Conservation Voters ran one supporting John Kerry. 

In the general election dozens of groups entered the fray running ads for and against Bush and Kerry.  The Kerry campaign's inadequate response to ads by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth / Swift Vets and POWs for Truth was seen as one significant factor in determining the outcome of the election. Progress for America Voter Fund's "Ashley's Story" ad in support of Bush, which featured the daughter of a 9-11 victim, was seen as very effective.  On the Democratic side The Media Fund did huge amounts of anti-Bush advertising starting in March and MoveOn PAC ran a number of very pointed ads attacking Bush.  TNS Media Intelligence/CMAG presented an interesting way to visualize all these groups in its July/Aug. 2004 newsletter; the image shows a set of red gears and a set of blue gears of varying sizes representing the TV advertising expenditures of the Democratic and Republican aligned groups.

Grassroots Campaigns
While a hands-on, grassroots campaign requires more effort to organize, it can have great effect.  During the 2004 Democratic primaries Americans for Health Care, a project of SEIU, was very visible in New Hampshire and Iowa as it sought "to make affordable, quality health care the central issue in the upcoming presidential election."  The "purple people" became a familiar sight on the campaign trail in these key states. 

However, the biggest player in the 2004 campaign was the Democrat-aligned America Coming Together.  ACT focused on battleground states, seeking to register voters but also to engage individual voters multiple times, learn and address their issues, and get them out to vote.  The idea was "concentrated, focused, repeated personal contacts" in the words of ACT chief of staff Harold Ickes.  ACT had 550 full-time staff, about 90 percent in the states, and employed some 3,500 paid canvassers.  ACT registered about 400,000 people.  ACT disbanded in August 2005.  Also new in 2004 was America Votes, a group that coordinates the campaign activities of a number of progressive groups; America Votes continues to operate.

Another Democrat-aligned group which was active throughout the cycle was and its PAC.  In June 2003 the PAC conducted an "online primary" which attracted considerable media attention, although none of the candidates reached the 50% threshhold.  In April 2004 the PAC's “Bake Back the White House” fundraiser prompted activists to hold more than 1,000 bake sales around the country raising over $750,000.  In the fall the PAC's Leave No Voter Behind campaign worked to turn out new voters in swing states.

One of the most important factors to watch in the Democratic primary campaign is how organized labor lines up behind the various candidates.  In the 2004 cycle Congressman Dick Gephardt was seen as labor's favorite, but he failed to gain the endorsement of the AFL-CIO.  While many individual national unions did endorse Gephardt, the inability to secure the AFL-CIO nod dealt his campaign a significant blow.  By contrast, in the 2000 campaign the AFL-CIO's early endorsement of Vice President Gore, on Oct. 13, 1999, gave his candidacy an important boost.  In 2007 and 2008, the situation will be somewhat different in that half a dozen major unions have split off from the AFL-CIO to form Change to Win.

In the fall campaign, labor support is critical for the Democratic nominee.  Union members provide the manpower for everything from turning out large crowds at rallies to working phone banks.  The AFL-CIO put together what it described as “biggest, most unified labor program ever” for the 2004 campaign.  The federation's political budget for the cycle was about $45 million.  AFL-CIO's Labor 2004 program placed a heavy emphasis on member to member contacts such as workplace flyers, home visits, and calls. 

Endorsements: Varying Impact
During the primaries backing of an influential group can provide a significant boost to a nascent campaign.  An endorsement obviously carries more weight if it goes beyond the press release or announcement and involves resources.  During the general election, an organization's endorsement of a presidential candidate is probably not going to affect the voting decisions of the group's individual members, but it does give the campaign something to talk about and is a factor for members of the broader public to consider.

Conventions: A Time to Focus
The national nominating conventions, with thousands of media representatives on hand, prompt many groups to mobilize and try to get out their messages.  Before the conventions actually start, interest groups weigh in on the party platforms.  At the conventions, a fair number of delegates are active members of one group or another, and they take the opportunity to network in various caucuses and meetings.  For example, 1,028 of 4,370 delegates at the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles were labor members.  Groups also organize receptions or forums or they may set up hospitality suites. 

In addition, there is the "outside" scene at the conventions, which has reached extraordinary levels in recent years.  Typically there have been demonstration areas at the edge of the convention sites where representatives from groups with opposing views can make their points.  In 2004 there were massive demonstrations in New York City.  Likewise in 2000, there were large street demonstrations in both Philadelphia and Los Angeles that built on the protests of the World Trade Organization conference held in Seattle in late 1999.  Also in 2000 Philadelphia and Los Angeles, several groups put together so-called Shadow Conventions to focus attention on three specific issues: campaign finance reform, poverty and income inequality, and the war on drugs.

2008 General Election
Endorsements  |  Ads

Organized Labor

America Votes
- "a coalition of over 40 of the most powerful national groups working together to increase progressive voter registration and turnout." [Organization] - The organization is now in its 10th year.  See the Political Action report People-Powered Politics 2008 [PDF]

Matthew 25 Network - "a community of Christians – Catholic, Protestant, Pentecostal, and Evangelical – inspired by the Gospel mandate to put our faith into action to care for our neighbor, especially the most vulnerable."

NARAL Pro-Choice America PAC
- Obama  |  McCain

National Nurses Organizing Committee/California Nurses Association
- Drive for Battleground Health Care Voters

Christian Defense Coalition - Barack Obama: The Abortion President

Focus on the Family Action
- October 2008 newsletter from Dr. James Dobson  [PDF]

NRA Political Victory Fund - GunBaNObama

National Right to Life - Comparison piece. [PDF]

Our Country Deserves Better - Stop Obama Tour

Wallbuilders - Voters Guide [PDF]

Enough Action Fund, Save Darfur Coalition, Genocide Intervention Network: Darfur Questionnaire

2008 Primaries
Main Page | Organized Labor | Endorsements | Ads-TV/radio | Ads-Print

Photos | Ads | Pro-Bush/Anti-Kerry | Anti-Bush | Labor | By Subject | Primary Season | Endorsements

Examples of 2000 Activity (most links now inactive) | Interest Groups Take to the Airwaves | Endorsements

General Resources

Professor David B. Magleby of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University has done landmark work on elections starting in 1998.

IRS -- Political Activities Compliance Initiative.
FS-2006-17 Election Year Activities and the Prohibition on Political Campaign Intervention

OMB Watch -- Background on IRS Political Activities Compliance Program.

American Center for Law and Justice -- "Churches, Free Speech, and the Regulations of the IRS Regarding Elections."

Americans United for Separation of Church and State

H.R.2357-Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act This bill, introduced by Rep. Walter B. Jones (NC-3) in the 107th Congress, would "amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to permit churches and other houses of worship to engage in political campaigns.")

Public Citizen -- "The New Stealth PACs: Tracking 501(c) Non-Profit Groups Active in Elections."  In its September 2004 report Public Citizen identified 13 501(c) groups [501(c)(4), 501(c)(5) and 501(c)(6)] active in 2004 elections, including some active in the presidential campaign.

Landmark Legal Foundation -- National Education Association Accountability Project.  This conservative legal group based in Herndon, Virginia (president Mark R. Levin) charges that "the National Education Association has financed and run coordinated political campaigns with the Democratic National Committee, other Democratic campaign organizations, the AFL-CIO and Emily's List-without reporting the expenditures to its members or the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), as required by federal law."

The Federal Election Commission worked to develop rules to clarify use of the Internet for campaign-related activity, including hyperlinks and endorsement press releases.  The FEC held a hearing on the matter on March 20, 2002.

Copyright © 2006, 2007, 2008  Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action