The big money outside groups best known for airing ruthless ads in the early state GOP primaries are elbowing their way onto the turf of presidential campaigns and parties — and some campaigns aren’t happy.
In the last few weeks, super PACs and other outside groups supporting Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul and President Barack Obama launched activities in Florida, other key states, and nationally — including phone banking, field organizing, direct mail, polling, state-of-the-race memos and even surrogate operations — that were once left mostly to the campaigns and parties.
The ambitious expansion is another example of a shift in political power away from the major parties and their candidates to deep-pocketed outsiders. But it’s left campaign operatives and even candidates grumbling about whether the super PACs are actually helping their favored candidates.
Campaigns generally are happy to let super PACs carpet bomb opponents with attack ads, but when it comes to direct-contact with voters and sensitive messaging, they fear that super PACs will muddle their framing, create confusion in the field and duplicate efforts — wasting cash rather than complementing their campaigns.
“It would be much better for the super PACs to just focus on running ads and not try to get into the ground game because that can get really confusing and reduplicative, and I think there can be some headaches,” said Jesse Benton, Ron Paul’s campaign manager.
While a handful of pro-Paul outside groups have spent about $3.4 million on television and internet ads boosting Paul’s insurgent campaign, Benton said their organizing efforts have sometimes conflicted with the campaign’s.
There have been complaints from voters who are getting duplicate calls — first from a PAC, then the campaign.
There’s also been some confusion on-the-ground at pivotal moments, like during the Iowa caucuses, where at least a couple campaign representatives dispatched to speak at targeted precincts on Paul’s behalf arrived to find PAC representatives who also wanted to address voters.
“Luckily, everybody was friendly and there wasn’t any friction, and they allowed the campaign’s reps to be the official speaker for Ron.” But, Benton said, “it just shows that when every single ounce of energy counts … phones and grassroots organizing is really best left to the campaign and the people that Ron’s picked to do that.”
Increasingly, though, outside groups are not always heeding that advice. And there’s not much the campaigns can do about it, because – even though the super PACs often are run by close allies of the candidate – outside groups and campaigns are legally barred from strategic coordination.
Since last week, Federal Election Commission records show, the super PAC supporting Romney’s presidential campaign, Restore Our Future, has spent about $215,000 on phone banking in Florida. That’s a departure for the juggernaut group, which has devoted the overwhelmingly majority of its $17 million (and counting) of spending to massive airtime buys for brutal negative ads like those that sunk Gingrich in Iowa.
The super PAC backing Santorum’s presidential campaign, Red White and Blue Fund, has reported spending more than $340,000 on a phone-banking operation it started during the South Carolina primary. It’s placed 1.5 million so-called “voter identification” calls in Florida, and is also targeting Florida voters with three direct mail pieces, touting him as – among other things – “the right choice for Florida Republicans.” And it’s planning to release a memo this week laying out a path through which Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator who’s trailing Romney and Gingrich in polls, can compete for the nomination — precisely the kind of thing that campaigns often do to try to influence media coverage.
But the super PAC supporting Gingrich, Winning Our Future, has perhaps the most ambitious organizing plans. While it’s only reported spending about $240,000 on phone banking – a tiny fraction of the $6 million it’s spent mostly on ads attacking Romney – it has trumpeted its intention to build a shadow campaign of sorts to boost the former House Speaker. It plans to set up field operations and hire state directors in Florida, Nevada, Minnesota, Arizona and California, and has begun purchasing voter files and courting the state operations built by the now-aborted presidential campaign of Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
The idea is to fill a void in those states, where Gingrich’s campaign has very little in the way of on-the-ground organization, because it was focusing on South Carolina as a firewall and has struggled to raise cash, at least compared to Romney, a former Massachusetts governor. Winning Our Future, on the other hand, got a second $5 million check from Las Vegas casino mogul and longtime booster Sheldon Adelson after Gingrich’s surprisingly strong win in South Carolina.
“We’re prepared to do what’s necessary and do what it takes to achieve our goal, which is to get Newt Gingrich elected,” said Rick Tyler, a top Winning Our Future strategist, explaining the group is hiring grassroots organizers and planning more phone-banking in upcoming states. “We’re not going to leave any aspect, any tool of campaigning, on the shelf.”
But Dave Carney, who served as a top strategist for Gingrich’s campaign before jumping to Perry’s, said super PACs lack both the lead time and organizational muscle to build effective ground organizations. That’s in contrast to unions, which have worked for years to build and hone effective third party operations that are deployed for Democratic candidates.
“I just can’t see how that’s a very efficient use of resources, but it’s the Wild Wild West out there right now and these super PACs are raising lots of money and experimenting with new things,” said Carney.
“I don’t think they made much difference one way or another,” he said. “We asked [big donors] not to give to any of the super PACs. We felt they would be a distraction,” pointing out that GOP presidential candidates have been asked to answer for controversial tactics from the super PACs supporting them.
Romney, in the days before the South Carolina primary, said “the whole idea of the PACs becoming larger than the campaigns themselves is a very bad idea.” And he and Gingrich have both distanced themselves from super PAC ads attacking the other, even as both have clearly benefited.
But the same plausible deniability actually hurts outside groups’ ability to set up ground operations, said a GOP super PAC operative who ran a group in 2010 that tried – and failed – to supplement its ads with robust grassroots organizing.
“No one is going to volunteer for you. They volunteer for candidates. They don’t volunteer for third party groups,” said the operative, who is active in the presidential race. “That means that you have to hire a lot of people, or, in the case of door to door stuff, you have to contract with a firm that hires a bunch of temp workers to go out and do it. I can tell you from my own experience that attempting to executive on-the-ground organizing is incredibly difficult as a third party group.”
It’s complicated further by the election rules barring coordination between the campaigns and outside groups, said Jason Torchinsky, a GOP election lawyer who was general counsel for Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 presidential campaign and is advising a super PAC backing a 2012 presidential candidate.
With advertising, campaigns and outside groups can figure out what one another are doing by consulting spending reports with details of buys that each is required to disclose in close to real time. With on-the-ground organizing, it’s tougher to determine quickly who’s doing what, while staying within the bounds of the rules, said Torchinsky.
And, he said “the lawyers have scared everybody into understanding the potential problems the coordination rules pose for the campaigns and the super PACs, and the donors. And I think they’ve done a pretty good job of getting everybody to respect the boundaries and the rules.”
Some campaign committees may be “frustrated” by super PACs “because they can’t control them or tell them what to do, conceded Abe Niederhauser, an official with Endorse Liberty, the biggest of the super PACs boosting Paul.
While Niederhauser said his group has tried to avoid stepping on the campaign’s toes “by occupying the digital space where they haven’t done a whole lot,” he conceded there’s no way to know if “we’re being complementary” to the Paul campaign’s strategy.
“I hope so,” Niederhauser said.