The first major ads look as if they came from a regular campaign. But they were produced and aired by groups independent of Obama and his GOP rivals.
The rise of these independent groups, which can raise unlimited amounts of money from corporations, unions and other wealthy donors and spend it to help their favored candidates, could end up defining the 2012 campaign.
But some of the groups could also pose a threat to established campaigns, which may find it difficult to stop them from wandering off message or committing strategic blunders. One rogue super PAC in Southern California has upended a Republican congressional campaign by producing a cru
de video depicting the female Democratic candidate as a stripper giving tax money to gang members.
Dozens of super PACs and nonprofit groups have sprung up over the past year in response to court decisions that have tossed out many of the old rules governing federal elections, including a century-old ban on political spending by corporations.
As a result, new independent groups played a crucial role in the 2010 midterm elections and are expected to be even more dominant in 2012. The Federal Election Commission bolstered their clout further last week by allowing political candidates to help raise money for super PACs, though they remain barred from coordinating campaign strategies.
The Campaign Finance Institute, which tracks money in politics, calculated in a recent study that independent groups spent nearly $300 million in the 2010 elections, more than double the amount spent in 2008. Michael Malbin, the group’s executive director, said the loosened climate is reminiscent of the Watergate era, which led to a series of wide-ranging overhauls.
“If you want to know what the 2012 campaign is going to look like, you have to look back 40 years — to 1972,” Malbin said. “These groups are functioning almost the way party groups used to function.”
The first major ad buy came a week ago by Crossroads GPS, a nonprofit advocacy group founded with the support of GOP operative Karl Rove. The group began a $5 million campaign of television and radio ads in 10 states tied to the ongoing debate about the federal debt ceiling.
“Fourteen million out of work,” a narrator says. “America drowning in debt. It’s time to take away Obama’s blank check.”
Crossroads GPS President Steven Law said that although the ad “might have some resonance into next year,” it is aimed primarily at influencing the debt-limit debate. “We’re definitely working to shape how the president is perceived, because how he is perceived will have a huge impact on how this issue is resolved,” he said.