For the past week, television viewers in Lansing, Mich., have been seeing twice as many ads for President Bush's reelection campaign than for Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.). But that does not mean Democrats have been falling behind. While Bush and Kerry slug it out, two liberal organizations, MoveOn.org and the Media Fund, have joined the fray with TV spots of their own, knocking the president's record on jobs and the Iraq war.
The result: When Kerry's ad spending is combined with that of the two independent groups, Democrats have been able to go toe to toe with the president. "The share of voice seems relatively equal here," said Michael J. King, general manager of WILX-TV, one of four Lansing stations running campaign ads. "The Democratic side is coming at it from two or three sources."
The ad wars in Lansing may be a microcosm of what is to come in the next few months in cities and states nationwide. In Michigan, Florida, Ohio and 14 other "battlegrounds" that could be decisive in the fall, Democrats are counting on independent but loyally Democratic organizations such as the Media Fund to level the huge fundraising advantage that Bush enjoys over Kerry.
Under federal campaign finance laws, these organizations -- representing teachers, environmentalists, civil rights and abortion rights activists and other traditional Democratic constituencies -- cannot legally coordinate their advertising or activities with the Kerry campaign or the Democratic National Committee. Nevertheless, a coalition of 28 groups says it is poised to raise millions of dollars to supplement the Democratic effort between now and the Nov. 2 election, substantially closing the image-making gap with the president.
The groups, which include the AFL-CIO, the Sierra Club and the NAACP National Voter Fund, have no illusions that they can match Bush's potentially record-setting ad spending dollar for dollar, particularly at the national level (Bush's campaign is far outspending all of the Democrats on cable TV networks and radio). Instead, their goal is to keep Democrats competitive with Bush in a few dozen key cities until the Democratic National Convention in late July, after which Kerry will access about $75 million in federal campaign money to compete with Bush.
"We find ourselves in a much more competitive situation than we had reason to think we'd be in a year ago," said Jim Jordan, Kerry's former campaign manager, who is advising several of the Democratic groups, including the Media Fund. "It's increasingly clear that Democrats will have enough money to stay competitive and be heard throughout the spring and summer. We're not spending as much [as Bush] but we don't have to. We just have to spend it in the right place."
As Lansing showed last week, the impact of outside groups can be substantial.
According to an independent expert and a Media Fund analysis of campaign ad spending in 17 swing states, Bush was actually reaching fewer people with his ads in several key markets than the combined Democratic effort. For example, the president was advertising at more than twice the ad level of Kerry alone in Des Moines -- but at only half the rate of all the Democrats once the Media Fund and MoveOn commercials were added in. The president also was behind in several populous regions of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
In regions that look to be solid Bush country -- Florida's conservative Panhandle, for instance -- the Democrats are not advertising. Instead, they seem to have chosen to train their fire on areas with many undecided voters, such as Orlando and Tampa.
The Democrats' main goal is to prevent Kerry from being overwhelmed by Bush's paid messages during the post-primary period, when Kerry is relatively short of money. In 1996, President Bill Clinton used his fundraising advantage over his expected opponent, Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), to saturate the airwaves with ads that defined his candidacy before Dole could raise the money to respond. Bush did something similar in 2000 before his opponent, Vice President Al Gore, was able to recover.
But many Republicans and some independent analysts argue that these Democratic groups -- known as "527s" for the section of the tax code under which they are organized -- are violating a ban on large unregulated contributions under election law. The Republican National Committee, joined by campaign watchdog groups, has asked the Federal Election Commission to rein in the Media Fund and other pro-Democratic groups because they operate under less stringent disclosure regulations than official party organizations.
Scott Stanzel, a spokesman for Bush's reelection effort, said Democrats have created a "shadow" party of organizations to skirt the spirit of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. Their ads, he said, "are more bitter attacks from angry partisans."
The six-member FEC is evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, and one Democratic member has signaled her reluctance to order fundamental changes. The agency is not expected to finalize any action on the GOP petition until late July at the earliest, which means even a negative ruling for Democrats would have limited impact on the 527s' spending.
Anthony Corrado, a campaign finance expert and a visiting scholar at the Brookings Institution, said Bush is starting from behind in the ad wars because battleground states such as Iowa, New Hampshire and Wisconsin held Democratic primaries in which the candidates ran many anti-Bush ads. This, along with ads from the outside groups, may have prompted the Bush campaign to start spending money several weeks earlier than it had planned, he said.
While the allied-Democratic groups do not mention Kerry in their commercials, they do raise issues that Kerry, and local Democratic candidates, are likely to benefit from. For example, the Media Fund, a group headed by former Clinton White House adviser Harold Ickes, is running a 30-second spot featuring a picture of a factory that begins: "During the past three years, it's true George W. Bush has created more jobs. Unfortunately . . ." and here the camera pulls back to reveal Chinese lettering on the side of the factory, "they were created in places like China."
In the meantime, the Bush campaign has spent $22.8 million on ads in battleground states, $3.4 million on national cable TV and more than $1 million on radio, Democratic media specialists said.
It is not clear how much the Democratic groups are poised to spend. But "when you combine the resources of labor, the teachers, the choice and environmental movement, you get to a big number pretty quickly," said Cecile Richards, president of America Votes, a group acting as "traffic cop" for the 28 allied Democratic organizations. "People used to wake up in September and realize there was an election coming. Now, they're waking up in March and giving."
Stanzel called the estimates of the Democratic fundraising prowess "substantial," but he questions whether these groups can turn pledges of support into actual spendable dollars. The Media Fund, for example, reported to the Federal Election Commission earlier this month that it had raised just $3.4 million between November and early March.
Jordan said, however, that "the money comes in as we need it" from wealthy donors. As evidence, he said the group will extend last week's ad buy for another week, starting today.
Republicans have held off forming 527s, although strategists expect conservative-leaning groups to form them if the FEC declines to inhibit the Democratic groups.
Evan Tracey, chief operating officer of TNSMI/Campaign Media Analysis Group, an Arlington firm that tracks ad spending, said Democrats and Republicans are about equal in their spending now, "but the $150 million question is how long [Democrats] can sustain" their fundraising. "One thing that's certain in all this is that Bush has money in the bank and the potential to keep raising it."