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Republicans, Twitter and the brave new world of campaign/outside group coordination

From left, Rep. Greg Walden (Ore.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee; Luis Fortuno, a former governor of Puerto Rico; Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee; and Sen. Jerry Moran (Kan.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, hold a news conference at RNC Headquarters in Washington on Nov. 5. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)
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CNN has a scoop Monday morning that is a bit like a scene from some sci-fi movie in which a background radio report mentions unusual malfunctions in a new line of robots. "How the GOP used Twitter to stretch election laws," it is titled, which somewhat belies what's really happening: The barriers between campaigns and outside spending groups have short-circuited, and we may be looking at a complete uprising.

According to CNN's Chris Moody, Republican groups set up at least two Twitter accounts that would periodically broadcast lightly coded messages about internal polling to the world at large. The messages were a sort of Twitter-based numbers station that looked like this:

@truthtrain14 FL-44/42-44/44-35/35-42/41-49/47-10/22/14-26

That's an example of a tweet from an account called TruthTrain14 that appears to be outlining poll results from a House race. We can parse it to some degree:

  • FL - The state
  • 44/42, 44/44, 35/35, 42/41, 49/47 - Topline poll numbers. It's safe to assume that the first in the sequence is the overall split among all voters
  • 10/22/14 - The date of the poll
  • 26 - The district of the race

So this is a poll taken on Oct. 22 in the race between Carlos Curbelo (R) and Rep. Joe Garcia (D) in Florida's 26th Congressional District. Curbelo won by three points -- one more than this poll apparently shows. Other tweets from TruthTrain14 and brunogianelli44 (a reference to a character from "The West Wing") included codes such as "2w46/39," which probably allows comparisons with polling from previous weeks (here, two weeks prior).

The follow-up list of poll numbers is probably a breakdown by ethnicity or gender, but it's hard to know which. That's perhaps the most important part of Moody's discovery. If it's impossible to translate the poll numbers without some special knowledge, that implies a level of coordination between campaigns and outside groups that moves this beyond a legal gray area and into a black one. Saying, "Hey, we put it on Twitter," (then mumbling to a secret account no one would ever see) is one thing. Saying, "We put it on Twitter in a way that required a decoder ring," is another thing altogether.

But no one cares about the malfunctioning robots. You want to hear about the uprising.

It's not clear who was tweeting the polling numbers. CNN reached out to the National Republican Campaign Committee, the Republican Party group responsible for getting candidates elected to the House, for comment. (The NRCC also was behind the fake news sites repurposing NRCC press releases earlier this year.) After being contacted by Moody, the accounts were deleted a few minutes later. A source told CNN that representatives from American Crossroads and the American Action Network also were aware of the accounts.

From a legal standpoint, campaigns and outside groups can share polling data as long as those results are published publicly. In other words, if Crossroads does a poll in Florida 26 (for example), it can issue a press release that says, "Carlos Curbelo leads by two." Of course, this allows everyone to know which groups Curbelo is doing well or poorly with, erasing some of the advantage of doing the poll. There are still restrictions on campaigns and outside groups sharing private information that would prevent Crossroads from just e-mailing the results to the NRCC.

The idea is that campaigns have spending and contributor limits that outside groups don't, and that if there were no prohibitions against outside groups sharing with campaigns, those limits would be essentially meaningless. After all, if Group X can raise $60 million and Campaign Y can tell it privately where it needs more TV ads, what's the point in limiting Campaign Y? (To which many people would reply: Yes, there is no point in it.) These tweets, then, appear to be a way to slip notes under the door while still having the semi-plausible deniability of saying, "We published the numbers publicly."

In Florida's 26th District, more than $6 million was spent by outside groups, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That includes $1.2 million from American Action Network -- a fifth of the total. It's not clear how AAN was involved, if it was doing the polling or reading the poll numbers. But if it wasn't involved, this is a huge coincidence.

The spike in outside spending since the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision has made scenarios like this inevitable. Earlier this year, we imagined a campaign run entirely by PACs, an unlikely but possible eventuality. In the interim, campaigns will be stuck in a position in which millions of dollars are being spent on their behalf without any legal way to provide guidance on where the money should go. (Here's the CRP's breakdown of how big the outside-spending flood was in 2014.) With all that money washing around and political power at stake, everyone sits down with their lawyers and figures out what the letter of the law allows. (The hobbled Federal Election Commission declined to comment on CNN's story.)

It's easy to think that the Supreme Court will eventually make all of this unnecessary by erasing the last paper walls between campaigns and outside groups, given the current trajectory of its decisions. That's the uprising, right there.