The Obama campaign’s misleading graphic: Super PACs threaten fair election
“Republican Super PACs and outside groups pose a brutal threat to a fair election in November. These groups are already spending millions of dollars on negative ads attacking President Obama.”
— From the Obama for America campaign Web site
President Obama’s campaign ran this statement alongside a graphic illustrating the sharp rise in pro-GOP advertising by special-interest groups. It shows a whopping 1,600 percent increase compared with the 2008 election, with the phrase “threat to a fair election” appearing three times on the Web page. (See screen grab below.)
The Post’s campaign-finance reporters have written extensively about the impact of super PACs, a new breed of fundraiser that can gather unlimited amounts of money to support political causes. These organizations came about after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010 ruled in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission that corporations have the same right to protected speech as individuals.
We’ll refrain from weighing in on the debate over the Citizens United ruling, but it seemed appropriate to review the data from the Obama campaign graphic to determine whether his campaign put the numbers in perspective. Does the astronomical increase in super PAC advertising really spell doom for the next election? Did the campaign leave anything out?
The Obama graphic uses data from a report by the Wesleyan Media Project, a group that analyzes political advertising. The study covers Jan. 1 through Jan. 25 of 2008 and 2012, so the chart doesn’t represent the entirety of both election cycles.
That being said, the president’s campaign got its numbers right. The number of pro-Republican interest group advertisements increased from 1,763 in January 2008 to 30,442 during the same period in 2012, representing a 1,600 percent increase. By comparison, the number of candidate-sponsored ads dropped from 66,557 to 39,429, representing a decline of nearly 41 percent.
But what does this mean? Not much in terms of the total Republican ads aired during that span. The Wesleyan report shows that the total increased only 2 percent, so the difference was negligible.
Here’s what the Wesleyan report had to say: “The overall number of GOP presidential ads on the airwaves this election year is comparable with 2008, but who is paying for them so far has changed significantly.”
Does that hurt Obama? Not unless the special-interest ads attack him specifically.
About 25 percent of the GOP spots in January 2012 contained some form of anti-Obama message, according to Michael Franz, associate professor of government at Bowdoin College and co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project.
We turned to The Post’s Mad Money ad tracker for a look at the big picture. It showed that 46 percent of all money spent on campaign ads during the current election cycle went toward some form of anti-Obama message. So the president has definitely taken some heat, but that doesn’t mean his hands are tied.
“It’s safe to assume that the Democrats will have plenty of money for the 2012 election,” said Paul Ryan, a campaign-finance expert with the Campaign Legal Center. “It’s just on the sidelines waiting for a target.”
Indeed, the president and his supporters have more money in their combined war chest than the Republicans and their allies. That may not be the case for long, considering how the pro-GOP super PACs have outpaced their Democrat counterparts in fundraising. But that dynamic could also change now that Obama has thrown his support behind the super PACs that back him.
The Wesleyan Media Project provided us with a rough count of the pro-Democrat ads that have aired. They include six by the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA Action, a little more than 100 by the Democratic National Committee, and about 5,000 by the Obama campaign.
The experts we talked to said that lopsided advertising is expected when just one party is engaged in a primary contest. “Comparing election advertising on a partisan basis is really comparing apples to oranges, because 2008 was an open race,” Ryan said. “The simple fact that Democratic groups haven’t been spending as much is irrelevant. Once the Republicans choose a candidate, you’ll see a lot more ads from the Democrats.”
As for ads aimed at incumbents, Franz said those are commonplace in this type of election. “You’re trying to win the nomination by proving you can beat someone in the general election,” he said. “One thing you’re going to do is make it clear that you’re the guy to do that.”
We don’t have the data to determine how hard Obama and Sen. John McCain went after each other in January 2008, but that information wouldn’t be useful for this exercise. Obama wasn’t an incumbent that year, so there’s no reason the GOP candidates or their interest groups would have targeted him — or vice versa — during that time. He was just one of several Democrats remaining in his party’s nominating contest.
Obama campaign spokeswoman Kara Carscaden defended the president's campaign message by pointing out that super PACs and special-interest groups have vowed to spend loads of money to defeat the incumbent, and that “just because haven’t spent every dime they’ve made or are planning to make doesn’t mean they’re not a threat.”
The Pinocchio Test
The Obama campaign used alarming language to describe the impact that pro-Republican super PACs have had on the current election. The bottom line is that GOP groups aired about 2 percent more ads in January 2012 than they did in 2008, representing a minuscule difference. Even if some of those messages attacked the president, he has loads of money to spend on counteroffensives.
There is a legitimate argument to be made against small but well-funded groups wielding potentially disproportionate power during an election. But that’s why it’s unnecessary to mislead voters about the impact that super PACs have had.
The Obama campaign earns two Pinocchios for presenting the ad numbers without context. Super PACs haven’t given Republicans an advantage — at least not yet.
Check out our candidate Pinocchio Tracker
Track each presidential candidate's campaign ads .
An earlier version of this story misstated the year of the Citizens United court ruling. The story has been corrected.