Super PAC ads adding confusion

January 11, 2012

The high-spending independent groups that have formed to support the presidential candidates may be barred by law from coordinating with the candidates’ campaigns, but that doesn’t mean that their ads can’t sound almost exactly the same.

And the average voter probably will never know the difference between an ad from a super PAC and an ad from a campaign.

Jon Huntsman’s campaign, for example, wants you to know that “we are getting screwed as Americans” and that the former Utah governor is “the person who’s going to lead the charge . . . and fix the trust deficit.” Words on the screen tout his accomplishments, including that he “created a flat tax.”

The so-called “super PAC” backing Huntsman has run ads with a voter saying “the world’s literally collapsing” and asking “where’s the conservative we can trust?” The spot answers “Jon Huntsman” with a list of his accomplishments, including that he “slashed and flattened taxes.”

A super PAC backing Rick Santorum known as the Red, White and Blue Fund ran an ad saying that the former senator is a “dedicated defender of the unborn,” “courageous reformer with results” and a “resolute leader in the fight against radical Islam.”

A new ad from Santorum’s campaign says “he wrote the law that banned partial-birth abortions, overhauled America’s welfare system, and no one has done more to protect America from Iran’s growing threat.”

Stuart Roy, a spokesman for the PAC backing Santorum, said his group looks to polling and the candidate himself for direction.

“More or less everyone is looking at the same numbers,” he said. “A corollary to that is that you can obviously see what the candidate is doing, whether it’s on the stump or on the TV.”

A 30-second ad that the group launched Saturday in South Carolina includes 17 seconds of Santorum delivering a victory speech after the Iowa caucuses.

Super PACs have become a powerful new force in this campaign, funneling large contributions, sometimes of $1 million or more, into advertisements helping the top candidates. They were created as a result of legal changes in the wake of the Supreme Court’s landmark Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision.

The court found that First Amendment protections for free speech extend to corporations and labor unions that want to spend money on campaign advertisements, as long as the money is spent independent of the campaigns. A lower court found that the decision allowed for unlimited contributions to political groups that are spending money independently.

Advocates of restricting money in politics say the parallel messages of campaigns and PACs provide a way for people to gain favor with potential presidents by writing a large check to their super PACs.

“This is one more indicator of the fact that the presidential candidate super PACs are simply arms of the presidential campaigns,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21. “The idea that they are independent from the campaigns is nonsense.”

Others say that free-speech protections should take precedence and that the contributions are no different than the favor-granting that’s endemic to any political system.

“Gratitude is not enough of a justification to abridge First Amendment rights,” said Brad Smith, founder of the Center for Competitive Politics. “It really has to be bribery.”

Unless new rules are created, the millions spent by super PACS will probably be indirectly influenced by the candidates, even if the two can’t directly coordinate.

Rick Tyler, a consultant with the Winning Our Future group helping Newt Gingrich, said that he often uses public statements to figure out how to best help his candidate.

“I dance with the campaign through the media,” Tyler said. “Those are the rules and we’ve followed them.”

Winning Our Future is planning a $3.4 million ad campaign in South Carolina focused on Mitt Romney’s record as head of the private equity firm Bain Capital, Tyler said.

Gingrich has led the criticism of Romney in the past week. The two sparred in a debate Sunday when Gingrich challenged Romney to denounce an ad by the Restore Our Future super PAC run by Romney’s former aides.

“I can’t direct their ads,” Romney said. “If there’s anything in them that’s wrong, I hope they take it out.”

While the PAC backing Romney has been running ads attacking Gingrich, Romney’s campaign has stayed largely positive on the air, allowing him to duck criticism for negativity while still benefiting from it.

Sometimes groups can do more damage than help, forcing campaigns off message. A group backing Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) recently put out a video attacking Huntsman as a “Manchurian candidate,” questioning his values, showing clips of him speaking Chinese and holding his adopted children. The Paul campaign was forced to denounce the ad, calling it “utterly distasteful.”

farnamt@washpost.com

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