This paper uses the 2000 New Hampshire primary as a case study to examine the strategic possibilities and limitations of group advocacy in a high stakes, high visibility race. Using ad buy data, interviews and a convenience sample of volunteers who monitored contacts from candidates and groups, we demonstrate that the context in New Hampshire, with its high voter turnout, intensive campaigning by candidates and pervasive media, reduces the impact of group advocacy in a campaign. At the same time, the primary race underscores the value of group mobilization and the increasing dependence of candidates on their parties’ affiliated groups to get their members to the polls.
Introduction: Until recently, interest groups were behind-the-scenes players in election campaigns. Once content to make donations to parties and candidates, groups now intervene directly in the day-to-day operation of campaigns (Rozzell and Wilcox 1999; West and Loomis 1999). Through issue ads, groups endeavor to influence the campaign agenda and define the candidates’ images. Through mobilization of their members, groups attempt to shift turnout in a tight race to their favored office seeker. These tactics can raise the price tag of today’s election contests and even drown out the candidates’ own messages. More troubling, perhaps, groups’ electoral advocacy is exempt from the regulations that govern parties and individual candidates, so they are able to raise and spend unlimited sums without disclosure. Thus, interest group advocacy undoubtedly plays a role in creating the expensive, negative, and unaccountable election campaigns that American voters find so distasteful.
The 2000 elections witnessed an explosion of group activities at all levels of government from statewide referenda and judicial contests to races for Congress and the presidency. Of the more than half billion dollars devoted to issue advocacy in federal elections on radio and television, fully 68 percent came from groups and the remainder from the political parties (Annenberg, 2001, 4).2 The party money, too, derived largely from groups and wealthy individuals in the form of “soft money” donations, which are not subject to contribution limits. Citizens for Better Medicare, a righteous sounding group that represents the pharmaceutical industry, spent over $65 million on issue ads, followed by two corporate lobbies, the Coalition to Protect America’s Health Care with $30 million and the US Chamber of Commerce with $25.5 million (Annenberg, 2001, 4). The AFL-CIO weighed in with $21.1 million, and other high spending groups included the National Rifle Association, the Business Roundtable, U.S. Term Limits, Planned Parenthood and the League of Conservation Voters (Annenberg, 2001, 7). Among the most competitive races for the House and Senate, seventeen entailed issue advocacy spending by parties and groups that exceeded the candidates’ expenditures by a ratio of 2:1 (Campaign Insider, 2001, 2)
In addition to injecting large sums of money into the 2000 election, groups also helped set a negative tone for the campaign. During the Republican presidential primary fights in South Carolina and Michigan, for example, the Christian Coalition and other evangelical groups accused Bush rival John McCain, a former POW during the Vietnam War, of neglecting the concerns of veterans. They also funded telephone banks that attacked McCain’s commitment to the pro-life agenda. Citizens for Clean Air ran ads in the California primary challenging McCain’s environmental record. Initially anonymous, the group was later identified as two millionaire brothers from Texas named Wiley who actively supported Bush. Another mysterious group, Hands Across New Jersey, charged former Democratic senator Bill Bradley with hypocrisy on campaign finance reform during the New Hampshire primary. INSERT SCRIPT FOR HANDS ACROSS NEW JERSEY Although both Bush and Gore benefited from the attacks on their opponents, they did not have to take responsibility for the ads’ distorted content. Moreover, in both cases, citizens had no way of identifying the sources of these criticisms and evaluating their validity.
As such stories become more widespread, they have exerted a substantial effect on the debate over campaign finance reform. Many congressional candidates who support reform, for example, have backed away from spending caps because they see limits as a kind of unilateral disarmament that will leave them vulnerable to outside groups who decide to spend millions of dollars attacking them. Other politicians, however, see the increasingly costly and aggressive participation of groups as an incentive to support campaign finance reform. Senator Thad Cochran (R, Miss.), a long-time opponent of the McCain-Feingold reform bill, has now embraced it and its modest attempts to regulate issue advocacy and independent expenditures.3 After observing the frenzy of group activity around the country in 2000, Cochran observed: “We’re defenseless against the juggernaut of huge, unregulated, undisclosed expenditures by groups” (CQ Weekly Report, 2001, 217).
Although the trend toward increased group advocacy in elections raises troubling issues about the legitimacy of the electoral process in the U.S., it has not yet inspired much systematic research. Some scholars have focused on Political Action Committees (PACs) and their contributions to individual candidates (c.f. Herrnson 1997), while others have concentrated on group lobbying tactics in Washington (Baumgartner and Leach , 1999; Kollman 1998; Walker 1991; Schlozman and Tierney 1986). Among election specialists, issue advocacy hardly receives mention at all (c.f. Popkin 1994; Holbrook 1996).
This scholarly neglect is partly a function of the relative newness of the issue advocacy phenomenon, but the most important reason for the dearth of research is the lack of systematic data about groups’ behavior. When engaging in issue advocacy, groups do not have to identify their funding sources, nor do they have to report their expenditures unless they explicitly endorse a particular candidate (Wayne 1998).4Production costs for ads, field staff, mass mailings and get-out-the-vote drives aimed at group members count as internal operations and are also exempt from reporting. Complicating matters further is the fact that radio and television stations do not have to report group expenditures on issue advocacy, although they must make a list of groups who buy broadcast time available to the public. Finally, a recently discovered loophole in the IRS regulations (Sec. 527) governing non-profit organizations provides another avenue for groups to raise and spend money without disclosure. For all these reasons, then, the true dimensions of group involvement in issue advocacy have proved elusive, except for a few case studies of a particular group (Drew 1997) or a handful of individual House races (Magleby et al. 2000).
Is interest group advocacy a widespread threat to democratic elections? Or is it simply another vehicle whereby citizens exercise their First Amendment right to petition the government? We offer a partial answer to this question based on research on a case study of the New Hampshire presidential primary which examines the strategic possibilities and limitations of issue advocacy in a high stakes, high visibility race. Using ad buy data, interviews and a convenience sample of volunteers who monitored contacts from candidates and groups, we demonstrate that the context in New Hampshire, with its high voter turnout, intensive campaigning by candidates and pervasive media coverage,
reduces the impact of group advocacy in a campaign. 5 At the same time, the outcome of the primary race underscores the value of group mobilization and the increasing dependence of candidates on their parties’ affiliated groups to get their members to the polls.
Historically, the New Hampshire primary has been a place for individual candidates to test their messages and organizational skills, rather than an arena for group competition. The 2000 contest, however, sparked a substantial increase in group activity compared to previous years, and by Election Day on February 1, roughly 45 groups were active in New Hampshire with advertisements, direct mail, telephone banks and get-out-the vote drives. Despite their intense activity, groups were drowned out by the candidates, who dominated the airwaves and the media. In contrast, the AFL-CIO and the National Education Association pursued a less visible strategy of mobilizing their members to turn out for Vice President Al Gore. In the end, these were the only groups that had any effect on the outcome, and not all observers agreed on the magnitude of their contribution to Gore’s victory. Thus, New Hampshire provides examples of two very different patterns of groups’ electoral advocacy in elections. On the one hand, the primary battle demonstrated how the electoral context and efforts of candidates reduce the impact of group advocacy in a campaign. On the other hand, it underscores the increasing dependence of candidates on the capacity of their parties’ affiliated groups to get members to the polls.
Opportunities and Obstaclesfor Issue Advocacy
Groups have several options to affect public policy—insider lobbying, grassroots mobilization, litigation, campaign contributions and issue advocacy. By issue advocacy, we mean the efforts of groups to influence elections through issue ads, as well as personal contacts with prospective voters through mass mailings, telephone banks and get-out-the-vote drives. Many groups avoid issue advocacy altogether, and those that do participate in election politics pick their battles strategically in order to maximize the payoffs from their efforts.6 Groups must decide which offices matter most to the achievement of their political goals and whether they have sufficient resources to accomplish their objectives. Then, they must determine whether they want to influence the campaign discourse among political activists and the media by raising the salience of their issues or framing them in a particular way. Or, they must choose whether to affect the election outcome directly by mobilizing their members to turn out or by shaping the images of the candidates through advertisements. Thus, group involvement in electoral politics is extremely sensitive to the political context and dynamics of a particular race.
Like candidates, groups confront several constraints on their ability to shape either the discourse or the outcome of an election. Voters’ attention to campaigns is limited, and their choices about candidates are dependent upon longstanding political dispositions, such as party identification (Miller 1991; Zaller 1992; Bartels 2000;). In addition, the impact of political advertising is uncertain: in some cases it appears to elicit a response in voters, while in others its effects are negligible (Ansolabehere and Iynegar 1995; Finkel and Geer 1998; Freedman and Goldstein 1999; Lau et al, 1999; Vavreck 2000 ) When groups decide to engage in issue advocacy, therefore, they cannot count on getting a good return on their investment.