Tag Archives: American crossroads

Last week, Ben Smith linked to a study (.pdf) by the Wesleyan Media Project on political spending in the 2010 cycle. The major findings: Republican-leaning interest groups outspent similar Democratic groups by 9:1, and hold a 3:2 advantage in overall spending. Put another way, with a 9:1 advantage in interest group spending, Republicans were only able to eke out a 3:2 advantage in total spending.

ActBlue is a major part of that story. The $80M we've sent to 3,600 Democratic candidates and committees this cycle stands in stark contrast to the "dark money" funneled through GOP outside groups. Unlike the constellation of 501c4 organizations and "Super PACs" that have helped Republicans, ActBlue is transparent. Our donations are contributions from inviduals to campaigns, not PAC donations. We report those donations to the FEC. Our numbers update in real time. In fact, while outfits like American Crossroads have flourished, GOP attempts to duplicate ActBlue's success have languished.

Those failures highlight the ridiculousness of attempts to brand Crossroads and Crossroads GPS as "Republican infrastructure." American Crossroads GPS (GPS stands for "Grassroots Policy Strategies;" you can almost hear the cynicism) is a 501c4 organization that doesn't disclose its donors. Original recipe American Crossroads is filed as (.pdf) an independent expenditure PAC. It can accept unlimited amounts of money, but can't give any to campaigns. In short, the groups themselves direct the funds, not the donors, and these groups can't help campaigns beyond the air war; that's neither "grassroots" nor "infrastructure."

Both groups owe a lot of their success to the Citizens United v. FEC decision by the Supreme Court and an opportunistic filibuster of the DISCLOSE Act by Senate Republicans. Moreover, the Crossroads model of fundraising is toxic among the electorate. As a short-term gamble to pick up seats while the RNC flounders, it may work. As a long-term strategy, it's self-defeating. After 11/2/2010, these groups will lose much of their raison d'etre, becoming a tax liability and a target for Democrats. If they continue to serve any purpose, it will be to game the GOP presidential nomination in 2011-12, which is shaping up to be an establisment v. grassroots contest. Targeted in critical early states, huge contributions from anonymous billionaires could do a lot to help a Mitt Romney-style candidate beat out a more populist foe.

In a pair of articles for the New York Times, Michael Luo delves into the role that anonymous donors are playing in the 2010 elections. Oddly, given his subject matter, he doesn't address the ways in which anonymity conditions what we are willing to say and how we say it.

Anyone who has glanced at a comment thread in the last ten years knows that anonymity and vitriol are intimately linked. Anonymous speakers are insulated from the consequences of their words, and that disconnect inevitably leads to harsher speech. Things we wouldn't say to a stranger on the street are happily tossed around in chat rooms and on forums.

That occurs because anonymity means less accountability: speech by unknown speakers can't rebound to their detriment, though it can damage both the target and the means through which that message was conveyed. That, in turn, incentivizes nastier messages conveyed through disposable conduits. In internet lingo, a flame war started by someone with an anonymous or misleading handle can damage its target, and the reputation of the forum as a whole long before it hurts the author.

These habits have their analogues in our politics. The astonishing growth and success (h/t CRP) of right-wing outside groups this cycle is about damaging Democrats through what are ultimately expendable conduits. Speaking through the ads aired by these organizations, GOP donors are able to elide not one, but two questions: who are you, and what does this ad mean if your guy wins?

Anonymity is the guarantor of security in both cases. It ensures the first question goes unanswered, and prevents the press from doing much more than guesswork when it comes to the second. When a harsh ad debuts, the donor needn't worry about reporters asking them whether they endorse the content. Any politician who benefits from the ad has enough room to distance himself from its content, during the campaign and afterward.

In short, the GOP filibuster of the DISCLOSE Act didn't just enable unlimited spending by anonymous donors. These groups–if they or their equivalents persist after election day–will slowly lead us down the path toward politics-as-flame-war.

Jonathan Martin has a story on POLITICO about the Republican edge in third-party spending. The argument runs as follows: conservative groups like American Crossroads, American Crossroads GPS, the Chamber of Commerce, and the constellation of powerbrokers Yahoo called the Shadow GOP have outspent outside Democratic groups. That's true. Where Martin errs is when he equates that with Democratic donor disengagement and disarray:

Liberal-leaning organizations answer that it’s not a matter of desire but something more simple: They don’t have the money.

And that’s partly because, even after the historic accomplishments of the current Congress, some on the left are unhappy that priorities, such as a climate change bill, weren’t passed.

That strikes me as a misreading of the situation. For those of you who are political traditionalists, I'll note that the major Democratic committees, (DNC, DSCC, DCCC) all raised more in August than the major Republican committees. The Democratic committees also spent more and have more cash on hand. 

If you're curious about how outside groups are doing, let's compare some quick numbers. According to Justin Elliott of Salon, American Crossroads raised $2.6M in August, with $2.4M of that coming from just three billionaires. In contrast, ActBlue sent $4.2M to 1,422 Democratic candidates and committees, via 34,000 donations. It's true that American Crossroads does something different than ActBlue–they'll be making ad buys. We won't. Instead, we'll be sending money to people who make ad buys. That seems like a fairly minor difference, from the perspective of Martin's argument.

There are two things at work here, and neither of them are donor unhappiness.

The first is a change (a change that Martin's editors have noted) in how individuals relate to large institutions that's become an essential part of the zeitgeist. The Tea Party derives its support from a claim to represent authentic conservative values, rather than compromised establishment mores. ActBlue makes a less-ideological pitch: we send your money where you tell us to send it–provided you're sending it to a Democrat. But both ideas feed off the zeitgeist in different ways, and represent a shift away from the more traditional conduits that Martin quotes in his story. But it's a shift, not a diminution.

Second, a major factor behind support for Republican groups like American Crossroads is the sheer disarray of the Steele-driven RNC. In the table I linked to above, the RNC is the only body with a negative change in cash on hand, and the Republicans have been forced to compensate. In short, it's not an apples-to-apples comparison. Martin examines the lagging indicator on the Democratic side and the leading indicator on the Republican side, and then concludes that Democrats are off their game.


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