Progressives who look with horror at the hundreds of millions of dollars that right-wing Super-PACs are planning to spend on attack ads during the general election have been wondering: “Where’s the cavalry?” Where’s the countervailing money from the rich people on the other side of the barricades, such as they are?
The partial answer, according to Nick Confessore of The New York Times, is that progressive money is mostly going into election infrastructure rather than advertising war chests.
“The idea that we’re going to engage in an arms race on advertising with the Republicans is not appealing to many liberal donors,” said David Brock, the founder of American Bridge 21st Century.
The advertising-oriented Democratic super PACs, including Priorities USA and two groups founded to back Democrats in Congress, remain on the list of organizations that the Democracy Alliance recommends to its members. Robert McKay, who is the chairman of the Democracy Alliance and sits on the board of Priorities USA, said the $100 million expected to be spent this year by alliance members would include some money for election ads, but would most likely favor grass-roots organizing and research groups.
“There is a bias towards funding infrastructure as it relates to the elections,” Mr. McKay said. “That means get-out-the-vote efforts” directed toward young voters, single women, black voters and Latinos, he said.
Even where paid broadcast media is an important line-item expenditure for independent progressive groups, it’s likely to be subordinate to grassroots GOTV efforts, it seems:
Some groups will pay for both advertising and organizing. PAC+, a super PAC founded by the San Francisco philanthropist Steve Phillips, a member of the Democracy Alliance, expects to spend about $10 million on Latino voters in six states, with a heavy emphasis on Arizona, which the Obama campaign is seeking to turn into a battleground. Half of PAC+ spending will go to enrollment and half to advertising.
“You can dump 10 or 20 million in TV ads in Ohio and try to reach the persuadable swing voters there, or you can up voter turnout among Latinos in Colorado and Arizona and win that way,” Mr. Phillips said. “It’s much cheaper.”
You get the feeling reading Confessore’s piece that some progressives with money to invest simply think of massive ad spending as “enemy turf,” where it’s impossible to compete effectively, or as morally suspect. Others may figure it’s the job of the Obama campaign or the national party committees.
But it’s also worth noting that the consensus of political scientists for some time has been that paid broadcast advertising in presidential general elections is vastly overrated. (Read this John Sides piece that covers some of the reasons why that might be the case). Yes, it’s extremely dangerous to let the other side completely dominate paid ads, and perhaps more importantly, they can be very effective in down-ballot races where the candidates are not as well known. But dollar-for-dollar, particularly in a close election, it probably makes more sense for the marginal expenditure to go into election infrastructure efforts that will pay off for multiple candidates.