Highlights from The New Soft Money

Dan Tokaji & Renata Strause

Thanks to Rick and Heather for their posts on The New Soft Money, the report on outside spending that we released this morning.  We believe this report to be the first of its kind, in investigating and analyzing the effects of outside spending, by interviewing those who are in the best position to know: the political insiders who are most directly affected by it.

In recent years, we’ve seen the rapid proliferation in the number of outside groups – those that aren’t formally affiliated with candidates or parties – coupled with a dramatic increase in how much these groups are spending to influence federal elections.  There’s been a great deal of attention to raw numbers, but much less in-depth analysis of how all these groups and all this money actually affects elections and politics.

Over the last year, with the generous support of the Open Society Foundations, we conducted in-depth interviews with 43 key political players.  Our interviewees included former members of Congress from across the political spectrum — like Senators George Allen, Kent Conrad, and Ben Nelson, and Representives Mark Critz, Steve LaTourette, and Joe Walsh — as well as campaign staff, legislative staff, and other political operatives, including people from outside groups themselves. Our report also includes a detailed analysis of the changes in federal law over the years, and the current legal and political landscape.

One of the most surprising things we found is substantial agreement on what’s actually happening in the brave new world of large independent expenditures.  To be sure, there are pronounced differences as to whether these changes are desirable, what’s causing them, and what changes in law are appropriate.  Anyone who follows campaign finance, even casually, knows how ideologically polarized this area is. But in terms of what’s happening on the ground, there was a high degree of descriptive agreement

Three big takeway points bear special emphasis:

First, outside groups aren’t monolithic.  There are instead a variety of groups with very different aims and strategies.  Chapter III breaks them down into four categories (pp. 46-50):  (1) Shadow Parties, which seek to help one party or the other; (2) Old Hands, established groups with well known policy agenda; (3) Buddy PACs, groups devoted to helping a single candidate; and (4) New Kids on the Block, recently established groups with a narrow issue or regional agenda.

Second, outside spending has substantially changed congressional campaigns.  Outside groups are doing a lot of the dirty work, including negative ads.  We find considerable cooperation — though we did not find illegal coordination — between candidate campaigns and outside groups. That includes signaling through “b-roll” and other tactics, detailed in Chapter IV (pp. 63-68).

Third, outside spending has changed Congress.  Perhaps the most striking finding is that outside spending is perceived as a threat —  occasionally express, more often implied – to those who don’t toe the line of outside groups. Chapter V offers some examples (pp. 80-88). To take one of them, Rep. Dan Boren told us that after his vote on one bill, “there was a message” (in that case from a labor group) that they would “come in big” in retaliation if he had a viable opponent.  Such threats usually aren’t expressed, because they don’t need to be.  As Rep. Steve LaTourette put it: “I don’t think they have to make a [direct] threat.  One, I think people are smarter than that; two, it was implied.”

Such comments highlight a key difference between the old soft money and the new soft money.  Old soft money was associated with access, like a wad of cash that you’d slip to a nightclub bouncer to get in the door. The new soft money is more like a bulge in one’s jacket pocket, an implied threat against those who refuse to comply.

Our report steers clear of policy recommendations, a subject on which there are of course profound disagreements.  Regulatory skeptics can be expected to argue that this evidence supports elimination of the ban on soft money to political parties.  Reformers will argue that it shows that the Supreme Court’s precedents, including Citizens United, are wrong and should be overruled.  While The New Soft Money avoids joining the fray, we hope that it will promote more constructive debates — informed by what’s actually happening on the ground — on these and other topics.

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