The Democracy Prospect: Bracing for a Costly, Ugly Ad Blitz

Matthew Putney/The Courier via AP

Republican presidential candidate and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush pauses as he is asked a question from the audience at the Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum during a campaign stop Tuesday, December 1, 2015, in Waterloo, Iowa.  

Welcome to The American Prospect’s weekly roundup highlighting the latest news in money and politics

The 2016 campaign’s big money ad wars have been joined in earnest, and it’s getting ugly out there. The ads are noteworthy not only for their high cost and volume, but for their patently false content, particularly in the GOP column. Unfettered by the truth-in-advertising laws that constrain commercial advertising, the leading Republican candidates have pulled out all the stops. And as on the campaign stump this election, the facts appear to have taken a holiday.

One whopper ad from the Ted Cruz campaign accused Marco Rubio of backing an immigration plan that “would have given President Obama the authority to admit Syrian refugees, including ISIS terrorists,” a claim that drew “Four Pinocchios” from The Washington Post’s Fact Checker, which accused Cruz of elevating the “ridiculous” to “new heights of absurdity.”

But as Justin Miller noted in the Prospect’s Checks blog, none of that stopped Cruz from airing the ads, which are protected under Federal Communications Rules that explicitly bar broadcasters from censoring political messages. Another doozie came from Donald Trump, whose campaign used footage of people streaming across Morocco’s border in an ad that implied the immigrants were coming from Mexico.

As Harold Meyerson riffed in his Thursday column for the Prospect: “Mexico, Morocco—sound alike, swarthy people, don’t speak English: What’s the diff?” Republicans have long made effective use of staged border footage, noted Meyerson, who cited the staged MGM footage of menacing-looking foreigners streaming into California that helped Republicans defeat Democrat Upton Sinclair in California’s 1934 gubernatorial contest.

There’s much more to come, especially now that high-dollar super PACs are playing such a big role in the presidential campaign. Ex-Florida Governor Jeb Bush and his allies, including his $100 million super PAC Right to Rise, have now spent $49 million on ads, reports NBC News.

Donald Trump, who until now has coasted along on a wave of free media, has reserved $1.9 million worth of ads through January 12. A pro-Cruz super PAC is training $1 million worth of ads on Rubio. Rubio is attacking New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. By the end of the month, The New York Times predicts, the sprawling field of GOP presidential hopefuls will have spent $100 million on ads and campaign messages that will add up to “a wave of ferocious attacks.”

It’s all great news for TV stations in key primary states, which are cashing in on the Super Bowl and the presidential campaign in the same window. Given voters’ growing disgust with politics, Super Bowl ads may generate more buzz than those aired by super PACs.

Crashing the Constitution

Everybody wants to amend the Constitution, it seems, and California voters have finally won the chance to give it a shot. For more than a year, California organizers have been trying to get an initiative on the state ballot that would direct Congress to amend the Constitution to overturn the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling. Now the state Supreme Court has cleared the ballot initiative, which had faced a conservative legal challenge. Despite some cheers from progressives, though, the whole concept of amending the constitution to fix Citizens United may be losing steam. As the presidential election swings into gear, some are looking to the White House, not the Constitution, to change the direction—and more importantly, the composition—of the Supreme Court.

Marco Rubio’s pledge to put “the weight of the presidency” behind a constitutional convention has also met with skepticism. Rubio’s proposal to amend the Constitution to mandate a balanced federal budget and impose term limits on judges and members of Congress strikes some as a political ploy to win over conservatives, who of late have been flocking to Cruz. Rubio’s “strange” proposal is a bad idea on its face, notes Slate, and no one knows exactly how such a convention might be staged or what rules would govern it.

The Limits of Money

One of this year’s political money paradoxes has been the seemingly tenuous link between success on the campaign trail and big campaign spending. The obvious example is the contrast between Bush and Trump. Trump’s persistently soared in the polls while spending barely a penny on TV—though as noted above, he’s about to unleash close to $2 million in TV ads. Bush, by contrast, has spent close to $50 million but remains near the bottom of the pack.

As the Sunlight Foundation reported recently, part of the problem facing super PACs is that while they can raise unlimited cash in large chunks, they face much higher ad rates than the candidates they back. Under FCC rules, broadcasters may charge candidates only the lowest unit rate in advertising. Not so super PACs, which must pay the same high rates as commercial advertisers.

The bigger issue for candidates, as any political consultant can tell you, is that a few large checks from big donors will never inject energy, foot soldiers, and volunteers into a campaign. Success in fundraising, particularly when it takes the form of winning over low-dollar donors in the $25 to $100 range, can indirectly measure a candidate’s knack for connecting with voters. That’s why Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’s record haul from small donors worries Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and why Clinton is at pains to prove she, too, is popular with low-dollar contributors.

Money only goes so far in big policy battles, as well. The National Rifle Association, despite a yearly budget of close to $350 million, is extremely worried about President Barack Obama’s ten new executive orders to advance gun safety. The gun lobby and its allies are expected to go to the mat to block Obama’s executive actions, both in court and on Capitol Hill.

But the NRA may have finally started to meet its match in such well-organized and well-funded gun safety groups as Everytown for Gun Safety, and Americans for Responsible Solutions. As I note in the Prospect this week, the new gun safety groups have taken a page out of the NRA’s playbook by amassing a grassroots army with state chapters poised to rack up legislative and ballot initiative wins around the country. Obama has called on voters who back gun safety to match the gun lobby’s passion, and to remember the leaders who blocked gun safety “at election time.” The gun safety fight will be just one of many crucial tests in 2016 of whether voters or big money get to have the last word.

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