Rise of the superpacs changes the nature of the election


THE GRIM piano soundtrack is gone. So too are the ominous voice-overs and sombre lighting effects. Suddenly, after months of relentless attacks ads, many conservative campaigns in the run-up to polling day are going, well, soft.

One of the adverts – called “Genuinely cares” – is by the pro-Romney conservative group Restore Our Future. It features an Iraq veteran and amputee talking about how the Republican candidate visited him in hospital and took an interest in his story.

“The Mitt Romney I know cares deeply about people who are struggling,” the former soldier, Peter Damon, says. “He helped make a huge difference in my life.” It’s the latest sign that pro-Romney supporters see an opportunity for its candidate to shrink the gender gap and challenge Democrat attempts to portray him as an uncaring vulture capitalist.

Restore Our Future is one of the richest “political action committees” – dubbed superpacs – around, and is spending some $18 million on the advert in battleground states as well as Democrat-leaning Michigan.

As well as highlighting a change in tactics, the intervention also shines a light on the shadowy world of wealthy campaign groups who are playing an increasingly dominant role on both sides of the political divide.

These often-secretive groups are redefining the way elections are fought by opening up multiple fronts of attack as the presidential race enters its final days. While by law a superpac can’t co-ordinate with a candidate’s campaign, many are sceptical that this is adhered to.

Michigan is a good example. A classic rust-belt state, the auto bailout has been popular among thousands of workers who depend on the industry. In fact, the state hasn’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1988.

So confident has the Obama team been of victory, it hasn’t spent any advertising money there for the past five months. Instead, it has focused on organising its army of volunteers on the ground.

Now that may all be about to change. The intervention of Restore Our Future and other superpacs suddenly changes the dynamics of the race.

The conservative group believes that with polls showing the race tightening, and a small group of voters still undecided, a barrage of messages in the final days before the election could make all the difference. Local polls indicate Obama is in front by six percentage points, but the gap is narrowing.

A spokesman for the local Republican Party said it was not involved with the superpac’s intervention, but said it would complement its own ground war.

“We have a strong ground game that can help close the deal,” the spokesman told reporters yesterday. “There’s no way the president can win re-election without Michigan.”

Obama’s campaign is, understandably, more sceptical. It talks down any potential threat and points out that Romney has actually been pulling resources away from Michigan and into closer battlegrounds such as Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

However, Democrat strategists will be under pressure to try to combat the advertising blitz, potentially upsetting its carefully planned election run-in.

Either way, the development highlights how superpacs are adding another, more unpredictable dimension to campaigning in this election year. In truth, neither Republicans nor Democrats are entirely happy with the role of these groups.

Democrats have long been critical of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case two years ago that opened the floodgates on unlimited advertising spending. And some Republicans, who have been on the receiving end of attack ads by pro-Obama superpacs, are also disenchanted with the system.

The court’s decision was widely seen as favouring Republicans. They have, after all, a deeper pool of wealthy individuals and companies prepared to pour money into campaigns.

Since the Supreme Court ruling, Democrats have tried to introduce restrictions on campaign advertising in congress. Two of its representatives drafted a Disclose Act, aimed at casting more light on the people funding partisan election campaigns. While it received support from both parties, it fell short of enough votes to make it on to the statute books.

Many observers point out that the barrage of mostly negative advertisements in this campaign has the potential to simply turn people off politics and undermine faith in the democratic system.

The figures involved are eye-watering. In 2008, a total of about 3.5 million political adverts ran on TV, according to Kantar Media, a firm that monitors political advertising. This time around, the figure will easily be surpassed.

While the barrage of third-party advertisements continues, some law-makers are keen to ensure it is one of the first issues to be tackled after the presidential elections are over.

Dan Lungren, a Republican congressman in California, has jurisdiction over campaign finance issues. He, too, has been on the receiving end of attack ads. He has put together legislation which, he maintains, would oblige candidates to be more responsible for the tone and messages of the adverts, rather than often secretive third-parties.

In the meantime, there will be no let-up until November 6th. The tone of the ads – soft and syrupy or nasty and negative – may change. But the intensity of this third-party air-war will only get more intense over the coming days.