Active at Every Stage

Organized interests and well-organized individuals endeavor to shape election-year debate at every stage of the nominating process, from the pre-campaign period to the transition. 

Organizations advocating on subjects from abortion and the environment to 2nd Amendment rights and taxes mount efforts big and small to see that their points of view are represented during the long presidential campaign. In addition there is a whole spectrum of ideological groups, PACs, super PACs, Section 527 organizations, and "social welfare organizations" trying to influence the campaign debate.

There are myriad ways in which an interest group can seek to influence the discussion.  A hands-on approach may entail developing a network of local volunteers and supporters and encouraging them to show up for candidate events or do some phone banking, producing collateral items such as brochures and signs, issuing a pledge, or developing a questionnaire for the campaigns to respond to.  A group can send out a team to follow a candidate's bus tour and counter its message or hire a plane to fly a banner over an event, or it may opt to run a more traditional media campaign using some combination of direct mail, print, radio and/or television ads. 

Different Groups Can Do Different Things

There are rules, of course, as to what various groups can do.  The foundation starts with the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971.  In 2002, Congress passed the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA).  In the decade since then, outside money has found many new channels to flow into the system.  The Citizens United and SpeechNow decisions and a deadlocked, toothless Federal Election Commission have left matters so that election campaigns have become, in the words of Paul Ryan of The Campaign Legal Center, "a wild west of undisclosed political spending."   

Political action committees pool contributions and then make contributions to candidates and party committees.  There are various kinds of PACs, connected, non-connected and leadership PACs.  Leadership PACs are one vehicle favored by potential presidential candidates in the pre-campaign period (1, 2).

After the passage of BCRA, Section 527 organizations, named after a section of the tax code, emerged as a channel for soft money funds.  527's can engage in voter mobilization efforts, issue advocacy and other activity short of expressly advocating the election or defeat of a federal candidate.  They are not subject to regulation by the FEC and there are no limits to how much they can raise.  Perhaps the most famous of the 527s was Swiftboat Veterans for Truth, which attacked Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry in the 2004 campaign.  The Swiftboat Veterans group was found to have violated the limitations on campaign activity, thereby falling within the jurisdiction of the Federal Election Campaign Act, and was forced to pay substantial penalties—albeit two years after the campaign was over.

Unlike an ordinary PAC which makes contributions to candidates and party committees, super PACs are "independent expenditure only committees."  According to the Center for Responsive Politics, these "can raise unlimited sums from corporations, unions and other groups, as well as wealthy individuals" which they then use to "advocate for the defeat or election of federal candidates." 

Super PACs were big players in the 2016 (+) and 2012 Republican primary (+) campaigns, to the extent that they formed a kind of parallel universe.  It can be argued that during the 2012 Republican primary, super PAC ads kept the Santorum and Gingrich campaigns alive, prolonging the process.  In 2015-16 the pro-Jeb Bush Right to Rise USA  famously raised just under $121.7 million in 2015-16, but its efforts proved ineffective.  While super PACs are nominally independent and are forbidden from directly coordinating with the campaigns, there are often connections through staff and advisors.  The FEC has struggled to come up with rules governing super PACs (FEC).  In addition to “officially sanctioned” super PACs such as Right to Rise USA, there are other truely independent super PACs formed by supporters.  In his 2016 campaign Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) received significant backing from National Nurses United for Patient Protection, an independent expenditure committee funded by members of the union.  It remains to be seen if super PACs will play a significant role in the Democratic primary; most Democratic candidates have been critical of the Citzens United decision and its consequences.  According to a Dec. 2018 report, San Francisco-based donor Steve Phillips is launching Dream United, a super PAC which aims to raise $10 million to back a campaign by likely candidate Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ).

In addition to the super PACs, another type of entity emerged as a key player in the 2010 and 2012 campaigns.  501(c)(4)'s, tax-exempt, not-for-profit social welfare organizations (>), are allowed to engage in political advocacy, provided that such advocacy is not their "primary activity."  These include such groups as Americans for Prosperity, Crossroads GPS and the American Action Network (AAN) and the NRA Institute for Legislative Action.  What constitutes "primary activity is open to interpretation.  These groups do not have to disclose their donors, and their activities are viewed with great skepticism and concern by public advocacy groups.  

Finally, mention should be made of 501(c)(3)'s.  These include charities and foundations, and their tax-exempt status is predicated on their not engaging in partisan activities.  ["501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office."]. The IRS seeks to curtail prohibited political activity by tax exempt groups. 

Origins of Super PACs

Two court rulings in 2010 led to the development of super PACS.  On January 21, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (>), allowing labor unions, corporations and incorporated membership organizations to engage in direct electioneering communications with general treasury funds. 

Before Citizens United these groups could engage in a broad array of nonpartisan political education activities such as distributing voter guides, holding forums, etc.  They could also establish separate segregated funds or political action committees which were allowed to make partisan communications to their members.  Under Citizens United these organizations are still prohibited by federal election campaign laws from making direct contributions to federal election campaigns. 

Building on Citizens United, D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on March 26, 2010 in v. Federal Election Commission (>) that contribution limits on SpeechNow, a Section 527 organization, were unconstitutional.  Thus was born the "super PAC." 

Single-Interest Groups

As noted in Political Parties, there are many ideological groups and organizations which taken together form a kind of ideological infrastructure around the parties, but which are or can be thought of as interest groups.  In addition to these, there are myriad interest groups focused on single issues (or sets of issues) such as oganized labor, environmental and pro-choice groups on the left and business, gun rights and pro-life groups on the right.  These groups employ a number of approaches to inject their issues into the campaign, and add spice to the discussion.

Grassroots Campaigns

Conducting a hands-on, grassroots campaign requires considerable effort to organize, but it can have great effect.  Grassroots campaigns focus particularly on the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire. Candidates and their campaigns take notice when activists from a particular group keep showing up at their events.  For example, at many events during this Democratic primary one sees one or more attendes wearing one of the red Moms Demand Action tee-shirts to highlight the need to take steps to curb gun violence. .  Groups do more than just having activist show up at events; they may "bird dog" presidential candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire.  Activists attend events and ask carefully refined questions to get the candidates on the record.  American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker organization that promotes lasting peace with justice, perfected this technique over several cycles. In 2016 under the theme of "governing under the influence," the group focused on "the corrupting influence of corporate dollars in the political process and in policy making."  Other efforts are more partisan. Seeking to "hold the candidates accountable," American Bridge PAC (+) was very engaged in tracking the Republican presidential candidates in 2015-16 and America Rising PAC (+) will have its trackers videoing the Democratic candidates at their events in 2019-20.  Other examples from the 2016 cycle include Freedom to Marry's effort to remove anti-gay language from the Republican platorm (+) and Political Action's effort to encourage Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) to run for president (+).  In the 2012 Iowa caucus campaign, the group Strong America Now did extensive organizing on the Republican side.  During the 2008 primary campaign, Ben Cohen's Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, Divided We Fail, ONE Vote '08 and the SEIU's health care effort were very visible in both Iowa and New Hampshire. 

Although union membership has declined steadily in recent decades (>), labor support is going to be crucial in the competitive Democratic primary.  Many of the candidates have introduced plans to strengthen labor unions and workers rights and they are appearing at various union-sponsored forums and participating in picket lines. Endorsements from major unions provide a significant boost to a candidate in the primary.  .  Union support will be critical for the Democratic nominee the fall campaign.  Union members provide the manpower for everything from turning out large crowds at rallies to working phone banks.  The AFL-CIO's election programs place a heavy emphasis on member to member contacts such as workplace flyers, home visits, and calls.  Although organized labor does not have the clout it once did, as a whole the union movement will play a significant role in the 2020 campaign.

On the Republican side, business groups and faith-based groups play an important role.  For example, the Faith & Freedom Coalition reported its Fall 2016 effort included more than one million home visits "concentrated in 12 states at mid-to-high propensity voters with a turnout score of 5 or above, as well as voters data analytics determine are either evangelicals or Roman Catholics, and have self-identified as pro-life, pro-marriage and anti-Obamacare" part of a "ground game that includes 30 million voter guides, 22 million pieces of mail, 15 million phone calls, and 26 million digital ads targeted to the lap tops and mobile phones of 15.6 million specific micro-targeted evangelical and Catholic voters.  

Advertising Campaigns

Interest group ads comprise a fair share of the political ads viewers are bombarded with in campaign season.  In many cases, other than the disclaimer, these are difficult to distinguish from ads run by the campaigns themselves.

 In the 2016 Republican presidential primary campaign, ad spending by outside groups was more than three times that of the campaigns themselves.  The Wesleyan Media Project reported Republican candidates and Republican-leaning groups spent a total of $270.5 million on television advertising from Jan. 1, 2015 to May 8, 2016, an estimated $64.14 million by the campaigns and $206.35 million from outside groups.  It will be interesting to see the figures for the Democrats following the 2020 primaries.

Super PACs, 501(c)(4)s and other groups are also run active ad campaigns in battleground states during the Fall campaign (+).  Priorities USA Action was the big player in Fall 2016; the super PAC reported spending roughly $116 million on TV advertising, $28 million on digital and $2.5 million on radio.  On the Republican side, the NRA Institute for Legislative Action (NRA-ILA), a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization, spent more than $30 million to "Defeat Hillary."  The Center for Responsive Politics reports that "the PAC and nonprofit arms of the NRA spent a combined $54.4 million in the 2016 elections" of which "96% went to the presidential race and six Senate contests."  "Most of that spending, $35.2 million, was channeled through the NRA Institute for Legislative Action (NRA-ILA), the powerful lobbying arm of the NRA (>)".   

Endorsements: Varying Impact

During the primaries backing of an influential group can provide a significant boost to a nascent campaign.  An endorsement obviously carries more weight if it goes beyond the press release or announcement and involves resources.  During the general election, an organization's endorsement of a presidential candidate is probably not going to affect the voting decisions of the group's individual members, but it does give the campaign something to talk about and is a factor for members of the broader public to consider.

Conventions: A Time to Focus

The national nominating conventions, with thousands of media representatives on hand, prompt many groups to mobilize and try to get out their messages.  Before the conventions actually start, interest groups weigh in on the party platforms.  At the conventions, a fair number of delegates are active members of one organization or another, and they take the opportunity to network in various caucuses and meetings.  Groups also organize receptions or forums and they may set up hospitality suites. 

In addition, there is the "outside" scene at the conventions, which has reached extraordinary levels in recent years.  Typically there have been fenced off demonstration areas set aside at the edge of the convention sites where representatives from groups with opposing views can make their points.  However, these are little more than side shows, and it is the street demonstrations that attract most of the attention.

Up to Election Day...And After

Interest group activity continues through the general election campaign and after.  In the fall, various organizations' endorsements draw a fair bit of attention.  During the transition period interest groups weigh in with reports, papers, projects, programs and recommendations for the incoming administration.

Examples of Activity