The Slush Funds of Iowa

Editorial

Published: January 2, 2012

Turning on the television in Iowa recently has meant getting hit
by an unrelenting arctic blast of campaign ads stunning in volume and
ferocity. Residents here say they have never seen anything like the
constant negativity in decades of witnessing the quadrennial combat of
the state presidential caucuses. The ads have transformed the
Republican race for a simple reason: a new landscape of unlimited
contributions to “independent” groups that was created by the Supreme
Court.

To influence the small fraction of Iowa voters who will participate in
Tuesday’s caucuses, the candidates and their supporters will have
spent $12.5 million, an unprecedented amount. Only a third of that was
spent by the candidates themselves; the rest comes from the “super
PACs” that most of the candidates have allowed to be established.
These political action committees are essentially septic tanks into
which wealthy individuals and corporations can drop unlimited amounts
of money, which is then processed into ads that are theoretically made
independently of the candidates.

But the PACs are, in fact, a vital part of the campaigns’ strategy.
They are run by intimates of each candidate, and whether they actually
communicate in detail about the timing and content of particular ads
is beside the point. In many cases, the PACs (most of which have not
disclosed their donors) have clearly been assigned the dirty work of
tearing down a candidate’s opponent, while the candidate gets to hide
behind sunny, stirring ads ending with a statement of approval of the
message.

The best example is Mitt Romney, whose campaign has spent more than $1
million on upbeat ads about his work in the private sector, his long
marriage and his devotion to his church. One even featured his wife,
Ann, talking about the importance of character in a candidate.
Meanwhile, his PAC, Restore Our Future, has spent $2.85 million
largely to attack other candidates, in particular Newt Gingrich. As
Nicholas Confessore and Jim Rutenberg put it in The Times on Saturday,
Mr. Romney “has effectively outsourced his negative advertising to a
group that has raised millions of dollars from his donors to inundate
his opponents with attacks.”

These ads, attacking Mr. Gingrich for his government lobbying and
ethics violations, are the major reason why his support has tumbled
since they were first broadcast a month ago. But they do not bear Mr.
Romney’s fingerprints, and thus avoid the taint of voter disapproval
that often accompanies negative ads. In one example, a Restore Our
Future ad attacks both Mr. Gingrich and Rick Perry as “too liberal on
immigration, too much baggage on ethics.” Mr. Romney’s name is never
mentioned, and few viewers will realize that the ad’s producers are
all close associates of his who worked on his campaign four years ago.

Mr. Gingrich has complained about the assault, but a few days ago his
super PAC, Winning Our Future, began running ads saying the attack ads
were “falsehoods.” It also has been urging viewers not to let “the
liberal Republican establishment pick our candidate,” presumably a
reference to Mr. Romney.

These primary ads, of course, are just a preview of what lies in store
when the heavy armament is rolled out for the general election.
President Obama already has a Super PAC, Priorities USA, that hopes to
raise at least $100 million and can be expected to return the fire
already coming from the Republican PACs. The president, too, will not
be heard saying he approves of their messages.

As bad as the 2010 midterm elections were for the influence of big
money, this year’s presidential campaign — the first since the Supreme
Court’s Citizens United decision two years ago — is shaping up to be
worse. There are no limits to the dollars involved, and no
accountability for the candidates those dollars are buying.