Tuesday, April 28, 2015

by Reed Galen

Days Until Iowa Caucus: 279

Officially Declared Candidates:

·      Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL)

·      Sec. Hillary Clinton (D-NY)

·      Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)

·      Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX)

·      Dr. Ben Carson (R-MD)

·      Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA)

Quote by A Smart Person:  “Circumstances are beyond human control, but our conduct is in our power.” – Benjamin Disraeli

Welcome to the American Singularity.

Why the Singularity?

·      The presidential nominating process is one in which everything, large and small, is sucked into its gravitational maw, allowing nothing to escape its grasp as events pass through the campaign cycle’s event horizon.

·      There is no more singular political experience on the planet than electing the President of the United States.

·      The United States is still the most free, most prosperous and brightest beacon of hope to billions around the world.

Every action and reaction feeds into this black hole of press coverage, donor reactions, voter sentiment and activist opinions. Nothing goes unnoticed and nothing is forgotten. Legions of reporters, bloggers, opposition researchers, trackers, social media monitoring services, vacuum up every last syllable.

Every week we’ll take a look at the campaign as it unfolds, and how events reflect the campaigns, the issues of the day and the country at large. Have a tip, piece of advice or something to add? Email me – reed@jedburghs.com

This Week: Super PACs – Jurassic Park for Politics

When the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth launched their now-legendary ad against John Kerry during the summer of 2004, it would have been difficult to imagine how much outside groups would be involved in campaigns just a decade later.

As the 2015 Presidential race cranks up most candidates have at least one Super PAC publicly announced in support of their efforts. Their topline advantage is money – unlimited money. Karl Rove and his Crossroads effort were the first, best-organized and funded 3rd party effort to advocate on behalf of candidates or carpet bomb Democrats.

Today, super PACs have metastasized into creatures far beyond the imagination of even the most aggressive election lawyer.  They occupy the realm of the nightmarish for good government groups and the now completely feckless FEC.

Of course if you ask me – would you rather have a super PAC out there supporting my candidate or not? The answer is yes, a thousand times, yes. More help is better than less help.

The Ballad of John and Russ

How long ago, and now how quaint, is 2002’s Bi-Partisan Campaign Reform Act, or McCain-Feingold.  The two Senators took their crusade against outside money to the halls of Congress and actually succeeded in having a bill signed into law. Despite their victory, even in 2002 President George W. Bush noted that the legislation was likely to be the subject of numerous Constitutional challenges. Indeed, it has been. After the following Supreme Court decisions:

-McConnell vs. FEC

-FEC vs. Wisconsin Right to Life

-Davis vs. FEC

-Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission

Courtesy Kip Lyall

Courtesy Kip Lyall

McCain-Feingold had holes big enough to drive tractor-trailers full of unregulated cash through them. Rather than getting rid of ‘soft money’ in American politics, the decade-long saga created the loosest campaign finance framework since before Watergate: A case study in the law of unintended consequences.

Weapons of Mass Distraction

During World War II, proponents of the Allies’ Combined Bombing Offensive, Britain’s Arthur “Bomber” Harris foremost among them, believed that Nazi Germany could be brought to its knees solely at the hands of Flying Fortresses, Liberators and Lancasters.

Despite nearly three years of around the clock, Germany did not capitulate to death from above. In fact, until near the end of the war, the Third Reich’s industrial capacity continued to climb.

B24 Liberators Fly Over the Oil Fields of Ploesti, Romania - 1943/Wikimedia

B24 Liberators Fly Over the Oil Fields of Ploesti, Romania - 1943/Wikimedia

In American politics today, super PACs bring their enormous power to bear on an opponent. But an onslaught of negative advertising won’t necessarily drive a rival candidate from the race. Despite the pro-Romney super PAC’s assault on both Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum in 2011 and 2012, its ultimate success was marginal. Santorum won Iowa and Gingrich won South Carolina. Not on the strength of their own advertising but on things both tangible (Santorum’s dedication to Iowa) and intangible (Newt’s fiery debate performance just before the South Carolina vote) that swayed voters to their side. Ultimately it was their inability to establish themselves as alternatives to Romney himself, not his outside artillery, that did them in.

In 2015 and 2016, Jeb Bush’s super PAC – Right to Rise, is likely to tip the scales this spring with more than $100 million in cash amassed. In almost Clintonian terms, some of his supporters claim that he’ll need to fend off attacks from his opponents. That may be the case, but don’t expect R2R’s first mention of Scott Walker or Rand Paul to be filled with happiness and light.

And unlike 2012, where only Romney, Newt and Santorum had significant outside help, most of the announced or would-be candidates will have super PACs on their side, too. Ted Cruz has reportedly racked up $30 million in cash for three different groups readying to help him in his long-shot bid for the GOP nomination.

Bush may be the only candidate to bring $100+ million to bear, but if the others total up somewhere near that amount, a great deal of the advantage may be nullified. With the significant improvement in data analysis, micro-targeting and not the regular utilization of television analytics to help determine ad buys, technology has helped level the playing field for smaller (though still significant) efforts.

As one purveyor of television targeting told me, “There’s only so much broadcast [advertising] inventory. We may see campaigns and committees buying 25 or 30 cable channels in a given system, just to hit that small margin of potential support that could be the difference between finishing first and fifth.”

Trench Warfare

And much like with Harris’ strategic bombing, after the bombs have gone off, someone still has to go take the ground. Candidates, their campaigns and their organizations still have to go out and recruit volunteers, encourage individuals to show up to the polls and convince local leaders to leverage their influence.

The political departments of the campaigns will create their precinct-by-precinct vote goals – how many to win? How many to finish second? The home office will demand metrics from the field – how many new volunteers? How many door knocks? How many emails collected? These foot soldiers, standing in a freezing church parking lot to support their candidate will ultimately win the battle.

And while super PACs may attempt to get this granular, without the ability to offer things such as photos with the candidate, their family, or the chance to even drive a motorcade van, it is hard to see why many local activists would volunteer for the Death Star.

Outsourcing Campaigns

And as we saw with Santorum and Gingrich in 2012, they ultimately out-sourced their entire voter contact efforts to their super PACs. That makes sense. This year, however, there’s been discussion of how much more a candidate can push off to his or her super PAC. In a discussion on Twitter last week, Larry Sabato, Matthew Dowd and I debated the relative merits of an uncoordinated committee doing the grunt work for a candidate.

Sabato noted that in a state like Iowa, Bush’s super PAC could use its enormous resources to recruit voters to Jeb’s side. That might be – but Jeb’s issue in Iowa isn’t money. It’s whether or not Iowa caucus-goers will vote for him no matter how much money he throws toward them. As one well-respected Republican fundraiser told me, “Super PACs don’t make you viable.”

Courtesy @matthewjdowd/Twitter

Courtesy @matthewjdowd/Twitter

And for a candidate like Bush that is a key question: Does he have all this money because he’s viable or is he viable because he’s able to amass such a war chest? Whether he’s the chicken or the egg, the name and the money make him viable. One could say the same about Hillary Clinton.

On more mundane matters, super PACs would be hard-pressed to clean up a candidate’s misstep during a debate or speech. They can’t make up for sloppy scheduling or bad internal communication.

Indeed, a lot of political talent likewise may decided a super PAC is a better option than the campaign proper – robbing the mother ship of much needed qualified operatives, both old and young. Additionally, without the ability to coordinate, the super PAC’s and campaign’s message will eventually diverge from one another – their pollsters will read the tea leaves differently, the ad guys will have different visions for the same message. Chaos theory takes hold early.

“Life breaks free. Life expands to new territories. Painfully, perhaps even dangerously. But life finds a way.” Dr. Ian Malcolm – Jurassic Park

From Jurassic Park. Courtesy Universal Pictures

From Jurassic Park. Courtesy Universal Pictures

Is Past Prologue?

Despite the dubious success of super PACs in recent election cycles, donors continue to give at a record pace. Rove’s Crossroads spent $300 million in 2012 to finish out of the money in all the major races in which it played. In 2014, the Republican wave was building during the summer and ultimately crashed across the country last November. And while some of the GOP’s success can be attributed to outside spending, the shift in the US Senate likely had more to do with low enthusiasm (and subsequently) low-turnout among Democrats than the hundreds of millions dropped onto the airwaves and into mailboxes.

After the 2012 cycle, I went to Washington to ask how various committees and nabobs saw the results. My working thesis for Republican campaigns was that we’d gotten lazy: If we just have enough Super PAC help, money for television and good oppo research we don’t need to do much else.

In 2016 we appear to be headed back to that construct. Without a positive, pro-active message, it’s all noise. If a candidate or campaign doesn’t have enough to say about what it wants to do, why should any voter listen to them? If we know that Hillary Clinton will have her own billion dollars, we’d better be able to make the case for why the country is better off with a Republican in the White House. Otherwise, it’s just a referendum on Hillary and then it doesn’t matter who our candidate is.

Money, Money Everywhere and Not A Place to Spend It

At some point in late December or early January there will be no more advertising time to buy in Iowa. There will be no more pre-roll ads to buy online. The cost of Google Adwords will go through the roof. Banner and display advertising will be full. Iowa caucus goers will start holding ceremonial pyres for the direct mail clogging their mailboxes. They will disconnect their Princess phones and sit quietly in a room waiting for the tornado of campaign spending to sweep across the plains on its way east to New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Contending with the finite ways to spend money in politics also leaves open the chances for things to go very, very wrong. While all money, even super PAC money is reportable, as are its disbursements, once that money goes to a vendor, local party committee or some other outlet, it’s gone to the world.

Having tens of millions of dollars sloshing around the system looking for a home may inevitably lead to bad decision-making. In politics, money unspent is as bad money spent poorly. It only takes one rogue operative in an early state to have a monumentally bad idea and little-to-no oversight for a third party’s efforts to go irretrievably sideways...and ultimately end with a Federal indictment.

Author’s Note: This series is not in any way related to Harold Hyman’s American Singularity – The 1787 Northwest Ordinance, 1862 Homestead and Morrill Acts and the 1944 GI Bill.