The Party's Strategy
An 'Independent' Spending Blitz
Democrats to Use Novel Approach to Finance Advertising
By Thomas B. Edsall
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 30, 2004; Page A01
BOSTON, July 29 -- The Democratic Party is planning a $50 million to $100 million advertising campaign in support of John F. Kerry, employing novel tactics to enable its presidential nominee to husband limited resources for use in the fall campaign against President Bush, party officials said Thursday.
Flush with more than $60 million in the bank, the Democratic National Committee has set up a separate campaign operation with its own pollster, television consultants and media buyer to run a full-scale "independent" drive on behalf of Kerry. On Saturday, the first week's TV buy, worth $6 million, starts in 20 battleground states.
The first commercial is likely to use film clips of Kerry's acceptance speech at the convention here Thursday. Under federal campaign law, starting Friday, the Kerry campaign may spend only the $75 million it has agreed to accept from the federal government to run its general election campaign. Party officials are concerned that the rules could leave Kerry at a disadvantage to Bush, who may spend privately raised funds until he formally accepts the GOP nomination Sept. 2.
To counter Bush, the Democrats have adopted ambitious plans to take every advantage of the new campaign finance law, which allows the parties to mount independent expenditures on behalf of their nominees as long as the efforts are not coordinated with the candidates' campaigns. The new plans reflect the Democrats' unexpected success in tapping new donors for the fall campaign, with party officials estimating that Kerry, the party and independent liberal groups could raise as much as $225 million for unseating Bush in November.
After Kerry's acceptance of his party's nomination Thursday night, his campaign halted fundraising and shifted to federal funding. At the same time, the Kerry campaign linked its Web site to that of the DNC, in a bid to channel prospective donors to the party's fundraising operation. Party officials say they expect the most expensive Democratic general-election campaign in history.
"We can now make very good strategic choices because we have the money to do it," DNC Chairman Terence R. McAuliffe said in an interview. "We have the largest staff we have ever put in the field in the history of the party." In every battleground state, McAuliffe said, "you have the whole matrix of the DNC folks, the coordinated campaign director, the political director, the communications director. Every box has been filled."
"We have never done this until September, and [now] we have had everybody in place for 30 days," he added.
The Republican National Committee has created the legal machinery for its own independent-expenditure program set to begin Sept. 2, the day Bush is scheduled to accept his party's nomination for a second term. The GOP has not made a final decision to finance the program. It is well positioned to replicate the Democratic effort. At the end of last month, the RNC had more money in the bank -- $77.8 million -- than the DNC, which had $60 million.
The new spending mechanisms highlight the difficulties of using campaign finance laws to try to reduce the influence of money in politics. As envisaged by Congress, the general presidential election would cost a total of less than $200 million -- $75 million in federal grants to each of the two candidates and $16.2 million in "coordinated" expenditures each by the Democratic and Republican national committees. In practice -- with the courts ruling that independent expenditures are legal, the spending of millions more by the parties on field operations and the planned spending by third-party groups, such as the pro-Democratic America Coming Together and the pro-Republican organizations financed by the pharmaceutical industry -- total presidential spending is likely to exceed $750 million, according to a compilation of party and independent-group estimates.
The new form of independent expenditures by the DNC was sanctioned by a 2003 Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. The court declared that the national parties can each spend $16.2 million on activities fully coordinated with the presidential campaigns, and "unlimited independent expenditures" that may not be coordinated with the presidential campaigns. The only restriction on the independent expenditures is that contributions must comply with the federal limit of no more than $25,000 from each individual. Moreover, each campaign cannot be involved in decisions concerning how the money is spent.
The Democratic and Republican Senate and House campaign committees have used "independent" expenditures, but this year marks the first such use of the new spending mechanism in a presidential contest.
Kerry and Bush waged massive and unprecedented fundraising drives for their respective party organizations, and both are allowed to transfer any surplus from their primary campaigns to their parties. At the end of last month, Bush had $64.3 million in the bank and Kerry had $37.3 million.
The DNC's independent-expenditure operation is being run out of first-floor offices in a non-descript building across South Capitol Street from party headquarters in Washington to keep it legally separate from the DNC. It will be supervised by Ellen Moran, who has coordinated similar activities for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and has worked for Emily's List, a political group that has raised millions of dollars on behalf of female Democratic candidates who support abortion rights. Moran declined to provide a budget estimate for her program, although other sources said $100 million is likely to be a conservative amount.
She has hired the Chicago media firm Axelrod & Associates, which produced ads for the presidential campaign of Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), and the Northern Virginia media firm Murphy Putnam Shorr and Partners, which worked for the presidential campaign of Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.). Geoff Garin will do the polling for the party effort.
The first week's buy of television advertising will be in 20 battleground states, and TV viewers will see the ad an average of eight times a week.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company