Mission Semi-Accomplished

So far the Democrats' magic bullet seems to be falling short.

Ever since the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance legislation passed, Democrats have looked to so-called 527 groups -- named after a part of the tax code that allows groups to raise unlimited sums and make independent expenditures on issues -- to save them from cash shortfalls (specifically for advertising) that resulted from the reforms. Republicans, worried about their use, condemned the 527s as a "shadow Democratic Party" and demanded that the Federal Election Commission prevent them from airing ads.

But two months after Super Tuesday effectively ended the Democratic primary season, both sides have been proven wrong. Several 527s have already spent most of the money they'd raised for advertising. One, disappointed in fund raising, has dramatically scaled back its ambitions. Another is making plans to decommission after it runs through its remaining cash on hand. Yet another considers itself right on track, though it has spent less than $1 million so far -- a relative pittance in a campaign of $25 million ad buys. What's more, John Kerry's unprecedented ability to raise money and launch his own paid media campaign so quickly after the primaries has made the 527s less central in the Bush-Kerry media war than anyone expected them to be.

To begin with, only three of the Democratic 527s wound up focusing primarily on television advertising: the Media Fund, founded by former Clinton deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes; the MoveOn.org Voter Fund, started by the liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org to do issue ads; and the New Democrat Network's (NDN) 527, run by Simon Rosenberg as a supplement to the network's ongoing program of activities to promote Democratic officeholders. The rest of the 527s, such as America Coming Together (ACT), are primarily focused on grass-roots organizing and other activities that neither the Kerry campaign nor the Democratic National Committee (DNC) has the time or legal authority to do. (For example, Kerry had no Ohio field office as of late April, but ACT had been organizing in the state for six months.)

More importantly, the campaign-finance laws constraining the 527s -- which the Republicans accuse them of violating -- have, in fact, successfully kept the 527s from doing anything to actively promote Kerry. When the Bush-Cheney campaign hammered Kerry with a $60 million advertising blitz (the largest amount of money ever spent on early advertising in a presidential race), the 527s responded with an array of issue ads that did nothing to define Kerry or introduce him to voters. The ads focused on such topics as health care, job outsourcing, and the federal budget deficit. The NDN has not mentioned or shown Kerry in any of its ads. Neither has the MoveOn.org Voter Fund. And the Media Fund has included the senator in only one of six spots it has run. Few Media Fund ads addressed the same topics as the Bush ads, and they didn't respond to them in kind.

This is not to blame them. The 527s are prohibited by law from doing express advocacy for a candidate. So instead of campaign ads, they run spots similar to those that Democratic interest groups have historically run during fights over issues such as Medicare reform or prescription-drug pricing. "The 527s can't do comparison ads or pro-Kerry ads," says Bill Zimmerman, a partner in political consulting firm Zimmerman and Markman that created most of the MoveOn.org Voter Fund ads. "We have to focus on issues, and as a result we are focusing on issues that raise questions about the Bush administration." That means that while President Bush homed in on Kerry's character and personality with a unified $60 million message, the 527s were fighting back in a scattershot way, raising questions about Bush's policies but unable to defend their candidate personally.

In addition to message, though, there's also the problem of money. The immediate post-Super Tuesday push substantially depleted the 527s' treasuries. In February, the Media Fund announced its plan to raise $75 million; in April, that ambitious goal was scaled back to $50 million after fund raising proceeded more slowly than anticipated. Beginning on March 4, the Media Fund went on the air. Over the next two months, it spent roughly $20 million in 17 states on its six ads. Today, the group has already spent more than half of its planned $50 million budget for the year and is trying raise the second half to spend over the next six months, says Jim Jordan, director of the Thunder Road Group, a political consulting firm, and a spokesman for the Media Fund and ACT.

The NDN also began airing its ads the week of March 4 and spent $620,000 over the next two months to run the ads on Spanish-language television stations in 10 media markets in four states (Arizona, New Mexico, Florida, and Nevada). All four are considered "purple," or possible swing, states. The Bush campaign spent $283,000 during that time on the Spanish-language TV market. "We are completely outspending him in these markets," says Maria Cardona, vice president of the NDN. And that strategy seems to be having an impact, according to NDN pollster Sergio Bendixen, who has crunched data and found the group's spots having the desired effect. Nonetheless, six-figure spending is a drop in the paid-media bucket in a campaign cycle where total expenditures from all issue groups and both campaigns may total more than $1 billion for the first time in American history.

The MoveOn.org Voter Fund has also spent comparatively little -- around $3 million, according to MoveOn founder Wes Boyd -- in the post-Super Tuesday period. That's because the fund existed largely to shape public opinion in the primary campaign period. The Voter Fund raised $10 million in small donations and another $5 million in matching funds to run ads in just five states during the primary season. "I'm as curious as you to see how long that impact lasts," says Boyd. But now that the primary season is fading into memory -- and possibly the Voter Fund ads along with it -- Boyd thinks it's time to move on from the legal shackles of the 527 world. Henceforth, MoveOn is going to be running most of its ads through a traditional political action committee, which is allowed to engage in express advocacy and defend and promote Kerry directly, though it cannot raise soft-money dollars in the unregulated amounts a 527 can.

Indeed, according to a careful analysis commissioned by the NDN, well-established groups such as the AFL-CIO, the League of Conservation Voters, and Planned Parenthood are set to outraise and outspend the 527s on issue ads during the 2004 election cycle. "There's been a misinterpretation of scale" when it comes to the 527s, says Rosenberg. "The traditional Democratic advocacy groups will spend more than all the 527s combined."

The first MoveOn ad to mention Kerry was released in late April, by the MoveOn PAC, contrasting Kerry's commitment to not leaving anyone behind in Vietnam with Bush's disappearance from National Guard service in Alabama. It's a powerful spot, featuring archival footage of Kerry in Vietnam, that takes on character rather than policy in the race for the White House. The tagline: "John Kerry, who left no man behind. George Bush, who simply left."

By contrast, the Media Fund, still working as a 527, has run with such complex, issue-oriented messages as, "President Bush offers no plan to curb [health-care] costs, and his new Medicare law would actually ban the government from negotiating lower prices from drug companies," and, "Under George Bush, America is alone, spending tens of billions of dollars to rebuild Iraq with no plan for success." According to internal polling by the MoveOn.org Voter Fund and the Media Fund, these ads have affected public attitudes about the issues they have raised, but they have not moved opinion toward their preferred candidates, nor have they identified preferred candidates for those who might be looking for alternatives to the administration.

The Bush-Cheney campaign is not so dependent on 527s, raising its millions in smaller increments, and so is unfettered by any legal constraints on message. It has run ads accusing Kerry of raising taxes and being weak on defense with such simple word-association take-home messages as "John Kerry's Economic Record. Troubling." and "John Kerry. Wrong on Defense."

"There are undeniable advantages to having one organization with all the money making strategic decisions," concedes Jordan. In an effort to gain some of those advantages while complying with the law that prohibits coordination with the Kerry campaign or the DNC, the 527s and major Democratic interest groups began, last winter, to hold weekly conference calls about strategy. Planned Parenthood, the AFL-CIO, the League of Conservation Voters, the MoveOn.org Voter Fund, the Media Fund, and the NDN all join in to hash out ways to avoid duplication with their issue ads and to make their money go further. "What's been so exciting about this year is that you've seen an unprecedented level of cooperation among Democratic groups," says Rosenberg.

The upshot, though, has been a mixed bag. Nearly every poll shows that Kerry's negative ratings crept up in the wake of Bush's attack ads. At the same time, the 527s may prove to have played a crucial role in the early campaign by preventing Bush from gaining ground in the battleground states during the five post-Super Tuesday weeks in which he ran positive ads while the Kerry campaign fell largely silent. "We feel that we've satisfied our basic mission," says Jordan, "to give Democrats air cover during winter and spring." But if Kerry is hoping for more than a statistical dead heat, there's more work to be done.