Mitt Romney would have been helpless to stop it. Sure, the putative GOP presidential nominee could have condemned the proposed third-party ad tying President Obama to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and, rightly, argued that he had nothing to do it. But, legally speaking, the super PAC behind the proposed $10 million TV spot, funded by TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts, couldn’t be barred from airing the ad.
Millions of voters would have seen the spot, redirecting the campaign into an overheated discussion of race – a topic that should terrify the economic-focused Romney. As senior adviser to John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign Steve Schmidt put it in an interview on Thursday with National Journal, running the ad would have been “profoundly stupid” – a point echoed by a litany of GOP consultants.
“First of all, it’s wrong. This is race-baiting, pure and simple,” said Schmidt, who opted four years ago not to make Wright an issue during the presidential campaign. “And this is an old issue. It would have been ineffective and backfired.”
Romney can breathe a sigh of relief: The proposed advertisement has been scuttled after eliciting swift, sharp backlash. But the close call still highlights a potentially ominous lesson for all political candidates in 2012: In the post-Citizens United era of loosened campaign finance regulations, candidates are at the mercy of well-heeled outside groups.
Those organizations’ prodigious financial resources can be enormously beneficial, but because candidates can’t legally coordinate with them, they risk having their message hijacked and campaigns hurt by well-meaning allies. Just as easily as a multi-million dollar ad purchase can buy a candidate victory, it can also torpedo their entire effort.
“Billionaires may think they have best interest of candidate in mind, but they may not know a whole lot about winning elections and how to persuade voters,” said Rick Tyler, who worked on the super PAC supportive of former presidential candidate Newt Gingrich. “And that can be dangerous for the candidate.”
Outside groups have certainly played a prominent role in past presidential elections, most pivotally in 2004 when the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth questioned, wrongly, Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry’s war record. But the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, coupled with a slew of other court cases and decisions from the Federal Election Commission, have carved a prominent place for outside groups, which can raise money in uncapped sums, in the political landscape.
Their advent means the third-party groups are poised to play a larger role this year than ever before -- particularly compared to the 2008 presidential election, when Barack Obama’s and McCain’s campaign each discouraged donors from funding outside groups.
“There are a lot of forces in 2008 that tamped down on spending, because campaigns wanted to control the debate,” said Mark Longabaugh, a Democratic consultant who runs a super PAC supporting Virginia Senate candidate Tim Kaine. “And this is a good example, after Citizens United and all the cases that have led to super PAC environment, that deep-pocketed forces like this can now step in and hijack the debates.”
Since Citizens United, outside groups have poured millions into campaigns. In 2010, they spent $210 million on independent expenditures alone, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Independent organizations, driven by the GOP presidential primary, have already spent nearly $120 million this election cycle.
The prospective $10 million ad buy, in the context of a presidential campaign where both sides and their allies could easily spend more than $1 billion each, is a single artillery shell in a war of attrition. But even without airing, the ad has consumed debate on the campaign trail today.
“You now have a system where candidate voices are likely to be the smallest voice in the race compared to these outside groups,” Schmidt said. “You see the ability to totally derail from outside the campaign the conversation the campaign wants to have.”