Much has been made of the unprecedented sum of money spent by the presidential campaigns and political advocacy groups on the 2004 election. But as Democrats found out, what’s important is not so much the amount of money spent, but how it is spent.
A critical component of the Democratic Party’s strategy were so-called “527” committees. Named after a section of the IRS tax code, a 527 group can accept unlimited donations for spending on ads, voter mobilization efforts and other activities as long as it doesn’t directly coordinate with a political party or candidate.
While Republican national party groups raised more money than Democrat party groups — $558 million vs. $452 million — the liberal 527 committees leveled the fundraising playing field.
Of the $464 million raised by 527s, the overwhelming majority went to Democratic-leaning groups. The top three fundraisers, Joint Victory Campaign 2004, America Coming Together, and the Media Fund, spent more than $175 million. The Media Fund spent $50 million on radio and TV ads while America Coming Together raised $125 million for voter mobilization efforts. They were joined by a myriad of other 527s, giving the Democrats a near-monopoly on the 527 market.
By contrast, the pro-Republican Progress for America Voter Fund, the largest of the pro-GOP 527s, raised just $38 million. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth raised $26 million.
The liberal 527s benefited from the huge financial support provided by very wealthy donors, most notably George Soros who gave $23.4 million. Altogether, the top four Democratic donors contributed $67.4 million.
The top four donors to pro-GOP 527s, on the other hand, gave $18 million. This includes California businessman Alex Spanos who contributed $5 million and Houston home builder Bob Perry who provided $4.5 million, $2.9 million of which went to the Swift Boat Veterans.
But it was the seemingly underfunded GOP 527s that carried the day. They did so by simply producing ads that made the biggest impact on voters. According to election night surveys by GOP pollsters, nearly 75 percent of voters said they were familiar with the Swift Boat TV ad that featured Kerry’s fellow Vietnam veterans questioning Kerry’s military service.
Public Opinion Strategies found that voters in six battleground states were strongly influenced by three ads — all pro-Bush or anti-Kerry. In addition to the Swift Boat ads, they included the “Wolves,” a TV ad produced by the Bush campaign using the image of a wolf pack to symbolize the terrorist threat, and the “Ashley” TV ad produced by the Progress for America Voter Fund.
“Ashley” may very well have been the year’s most poignant ad. Progress for America Voter Fund spent $16 million buying TV time for the ad in the decisive closing weeks. It shows President Bush locked in a tearful embrace with Ashley Faulkner, a 15-year-old Ohio teenager whose mother was killed in the September 11 attack. After that moving scene, Ashley tells the camera: “He’s the most powerful man in the world, and all he wants to do is make sure I’m safe, that I’m OK.”
Despite a huge fundraising advantage, the Democratic 527s never produced an ad that was as emotionally riveting and memorable. Said Kerry campaign advisor David Thorne, “The only three ads remembered by voters were all Republican ads — and that was after we spent over $100 million on advertising.”
It is almost as if liberal 527s had too much money and were content to spend it on aggressive ads that may have pleased the Democratic base but did little to move swing voters.
In late October, the Media Fund released a radio ad falsely claiming that the Bush White House, at the behest of the Saudi royal family, allowed members of the bin Laden family to fly out of the country right after the 9/11 attack when most commercial air traffic was grounded. The ad charged that because of this alleged conspiracy between Bush and the Saudis, U.S. intelligence may have been robbed of a golden opportunity to detain the bin Laden family and “find Osama bin Laden.”
The nonpartisan Annenberg Public Policy Center said, “This anti-Bush radio ad is among the worst distortions we’ve seen in what has become a very ugly campaign.” It probably turned more swing voters off than on.
So in the end, the Republican-leaning 527s got more bang for their buck than the Democratic-leaning ones.
Raising lots of money in political campaigns is one thing. But if it is not spent wisely, it can do more harm than good.