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How SuperPACs Are 'Gaming' The 2012 Campaign

Joe Hagan's cover story in the Jan. 22 edition of New York Magazine details why the 2012 election will be the "most negative in the history of American politics." (New York Magazine)

Correction: A previous Web version of this story incorrectly stated that Americans for Prosperity is a superPAC. In fact, it is a nonprofit group backed by conservatives David and Charles Koch that has also been spending money on campaign ads this cycle. Nonprofits like AFP can collect unlimited corporate and individual contributions but do not have to disclose their donors.

If you thought the 2008 election cycle was full of negative ads, just wait until 2012's campaign gets fully under way.

The upcoming presidential campaign, says journalist Joe Hagan, is expected to "be the most negative in the history of American politics."

Hagan says a big factor in what he calls the "tsunami of slime" is the emergence of superPACs. They're political action committees closely associated with particular candidates, and often run by friends and former staffers of the candidates they support. But unlike candidates' committees, whose contributions are limited by federal law, superPACs can take donations of any size. Hagan says the unprecedented flood of cash is allowing superPACs to hire armies of opposition researchers and ad-makers who will be busy planning attack ads from now until November.

"You've got so much new outside money coming in as a result of the creation of the superPACs," he says. "More money means more advertising, and that is how a lot of this money gets spent."

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, $215 million was spent by outside groups in the 2008 election. That number is expected to more than triple in the 2012 election cycle.

They've all sat down with lawyers and know what they can and can't do – so they've figured out how they can basically coordinate without coordinating.
Joe Hagan

'Essentially Mini-Campaigns'

In January 2010, the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling lifted restrictions on how much money corporations, unions and individuals could spend on political ads. But corporations and unions cannot give money directly to a presidential committee. Instead, they give money to a superPAC.

Hagan writes that the superPACs are "effectively mini-campaigns, employing more pollsters, more researchers and more ad-makers for the purpose of going negative against the opposition ... The rise of the superPACs has completely reinvented the dynamics of negative campaigning, removing the consequences of factual inaccuracy by allowing the candidate a veneer of deniability, while multiplying a campaign's effective manpower."

SuperPACs are not legally connected to a candidate, but Hagan says there's a lot of what he calls "gaming" taking place behind the scenes.

"The superPACs are being headed up by former staffers of those candidates — very recently former — so they're just basically walking away from Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney's groups and going over to head these other groups," he says. "Now they're not legally supposed to have any communications with each other whatsoever. They're all very paranoid about this because it can lead to jail time. However, as former staffers, obviously they know the candidate and the candidate's strategy, and it's only a very tissue-thin distinction between them being separate from the campaign and a part of it."

Last July, Mitt Romney spoke at a fundraiser for the biggest superPAC supporting him, Restore Our Future. Romney did not directly ask for contributions for the superPAC, but checks were collected shortly after he left.

"It's a joke," says Hagan. "Lawyers have been involved in deeply vetting all of this stuff, and they know exactly what they can do and exactly what they can't do. We're in uncharted territory here. And all of the consultants I talked to are a part of either a superPAC or a part of the campaign proper. They all talk about this. But they've all sat down with lawyers and know what they can and can't do — so they've figured out how they can basically coordinate without coordinating."

Hagan says the media has become a vehicle for superPACs to communicate with candidates.

"You'll read three stories a day with the consultants from the campaigns being quoted over and over and over either as blind quotes or on the record, and all that the PAC has to do is read these stories and see exactly [what the campaign] is intending to do and exactly what the message is that they're trying to get across," he says. "These backstage stories have become interlocutors to communicate between the campaigns and the superPACs ... These stories aren't read by anybody but Beltway junkies, so it's a perfect, easy way to do it."


Interview Highlights

On opposition researchers at superPACs

"The superPACs, in many ways, have displaced a lot of work that the Democratic National Committee or the Republican National Committee used to be doing. Those people are doing it also, but these people are doing it with much more money. So they can afford to hire more people, do more digging, get more advertising, [buy more] air time. And if Mitt Romney wants to do a certain attack on Newt Gingrich and say that he is grandiose, the superPAC supporting Mitt Romney — Restore Our Future — can begin to go through its opposition research archives, slap together a bunch of ads and air them in Florida."

On how the media influences negative ads

"What these guys realize is that you can dig up all of this negative information, but if it's coming from a Romney press release about Gingrich, let's say, it's going to have a lot less gravity with people than if it comes out in a newspaper like The New York Times or it comes out on MSNBC or CNN. So a lot of what the opposition research is about is getting the information to reporters, getting them to report it, and putting the imprimatur of an objective outlet around it. So this is the warfare that's going on between these campaigns."

On relationships between the press and campaign strategists

"There's such a tight relationship between the political reporters and these consultants who are giving them all of this information. I think this is part of a larger trend, over the last 10 years, kind of a merging of politics and media. You have Fox News and now MSNBC, which kind of represents the left. The distinction between the messaging that is coming out of political campaigns and their superPACs and what's going on in the press is getting more and more blurred."

On tips given to the media

"They're providing them not just tips about radioactive, bad stories that could lead to the opposition being kneecapped for good, but video content and archival information that [reporters] can use in their pieces: quotes and videos and things that [the researchers] dug up. ... It's not just Deep Throat kind of information, it's a daily barrage of well-researched information."

On how social media has made this process more open

"This has always happened throughout the ages, but in the past this was much more secretive. ... All day long there's this churn going on, and the reporters have these relationships with opposition researchers — they go out for drinks with them, they learn things. This has been going on in the past, but now it's much more out in the open. There are more of those opposition researchers and maybe less of the reporters. The power, in many cases, is with these opposition researchers."

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. If you've followed the Republican presidential primary, you're aware of the barrages of negative ads aired in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida primaries.

One analysis concluded 92 percent of the ads in Florida have been negative. Our guest, investigative reporter Joe Hagan, says that's just the beginning of what is likely to be the most negative campaign in history. Hagan says a big factor in what he calls the tsunami of slime is the emergence of so-called superPACs.

They're political committees closely associated with particular candidates, often run by friends and former staffers of the candidates they support. But unlike candidates' committees, whose contributions are limited by federal law, superPACs can take donations of any size, like the $10 million a wealthy couple gave to a Newt Gingrich superPAC.

Hagan says the flood of money is allowing superPACs to hire armies of opposition researchers and ad makers who are changing campaigning and the reporting on those campaigns. Joe Hagan is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and New York Magazine, where he recently wrote about superPACs and negative campaigning. He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

Well, Joe Hagan, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now, you say that the superPACs are really mini-campaigns themselves - I mean M-I-N-I, small campaigns, or maybe not so small - and they employ all kinds of professionals who are prepared to slime the opposition. What kind of people are we talking about?

JOE HAGAN: Well, yeah, I say these are like mini-campaigns, and campaigns are composed of - you have pollsters and focus groups that go out and try to test messages, get info information about the opposition about: What do people know? What can we say that will be novel and new that they haven't heard before?

They have researchers, you know, teams of researchers who are just - since last spring, 2011, have been digging and digging and digging, going through archives, video archives, print archives, looking at their - what they call votes and quotes: anything they ever voted for, anything they ever said. And they are organizing it all and preparing it for negative ads, leaks to the press, you know, all the different things they could tell surrogates to say on TV, ways in which they can show that the opposition has contradicted him or herself and, you know, is therefore a hypocrite.

You know, the heads of these are former campaign advisors to the candidates they're supporting. Their job is to go on TV and give quotes to all the press and keep the press fed with all the information that the press needs to kind of churn the news cycle.

DAVIES: So campaigns always had opposition researchers. Now, in addition to them, we have the superPACs with even - you say even bigger armies of opposition researchers?

HAGAN: Oh yeah. See, the superPACs in many ways have displaced or are doing a lot of the work that the Democratic National Committee or the Republican National Committee used to be doing. You know, those people are doing it also, but these guys are doing it with much more money. And so they can afford to hire more people to do more digging, to buy more advertising - that's another one I forgot to ad. There's advertising consultants, advertising makers. You know, they're buying air time.

And, you know, if Mitt Romney wants to do a certain attack on Newt Gingrich and say that he is grandiose, well, the superPAC supporting Mitt Romney, Restoring Our Future PAC, can begin to just go through its opposition research archives, quickly slap together a bunch of ads and air them in Florida. And they have millions of dollars to do it.

DAVIES: Now, the people who make negative ads and do all this opposition research have sort of made this into a science. And one of the interesting things you write about is the extent to which the effectiveness of a negative ad campaign depends upon the media's treatment and reaction to it. Explain that.

HAGAN: Well, what these guys realize is that you can dig up all this negative information, but if it's coming from, like, a Romney press release, let's say, about Gingrich, it's going to have a lot less gravity with people than if it comes out in a newspaper like the New York Times, or it comes out on MSNBC or CNN, or what have you.

So a lot of what the opposition research is about is getting the information to reporters, getting them to report it and put the imprimatur of, you know, an objective outlet around it. And so this is the kind of warfare that's going on between these campaigns, is trying to fight each other in the earned media, what they call it, the free press, trying to get their message to win.

And that's why money is such a big part of this, because the press pays so much attention to how much you're spending on these ads and what the message is in these ads, and that often gets that information deeper into the press cycle and into the press narrative.

DAVIES: And so it's one thing when you have the ability and the money to repeat a negative ad and reinforce the message. But there's this other phenomenon, where you go to reporters quietly and say do you know about this, this unflattering thing about my opponent, in the hope that they will then print it, and then eventually you have an ad which quotes them, the reporter, as the objective purveyor of this information.

HAGAN: No, absolutely. That's the whole sort of cycle - the cycle of life, as it were - of, like, a negative hit, which they - this is their language, a hit. If anybody who follows the Twitter feeds of all the political reporters, all day long, they're getting this information, little - it's like they're just dropping little drops of negative information to these reporters all day long, and they're tweeting them or putting them in their stories.

And they're just being bombarded all day long with all these opposition researchers who have good relationships with the press. And, you know, they see the press as their quote-unquote "missile delivery system." And so they're constantly trying to get them to kind of push this narrative, push some storyline that they're trying to get.

Just this morning, you know, I'm hearing from, you know, the Romney camp, from either a press release or talking to their people, and they're trying to push this idea of Gingrich is grandiose. You know, so they're just constantly trying to give you evidence of this, quotes from the past, things that he has said.

You know, as a reporter, you don't have to even do any work. You just receive this gigantic archive of, like, quotes that go back, dating back to the '80s. So this is why one of the oppo-researchers for Obama told me that, you know, opposition research has replaced investigative reporting.

Now, this is a bold claim, but to some degree it is true, that the speed of the news cycle is so fast now, reporters are under such pressure to deliver new information, you know, they don't even have time to do a lot of their own research. And they don't even have to, because there are these researchers who have been working on this since, like, last May, you know, just digging, digging, digging all the information. And they have it all organized in these giant books, and they are just constantly drip-feeding the press with it.

DAVIES: Right. And, of course, as, you know, media organizations have suffered economically in recent years, there are often fewer reporters. So it's maybe a little more tempting to pick up the readily packaged investigation.

HAGAN: Absolutely, and I think this accounts, to some degree, for the increasing focus on the consultants and the strategists of these campaigns. I mean, because there's such a tight relationship between the political reporters and these consultants who are, you know, giving them all this information, and all of their opposition researchers.

And I think this also is a part of this larger trend we've seen in the last 10 years, kind of a merging of politics and media. I mean, you've got Fox News, and now you have MSNBC that kind of represents the left. And the distinction between the messaging that is coming out of political campaigns and their superPACs and what's going on in the press is getting more and more blurred.

DAVIES: But, you know, I guess we should make a distinction here between the case where a campaign will tell a reporter something awful about the candidate, but do it on the record or, you know, will make a change. And in that case, the reporter might report it because if they don't, everyone else is, and to the extent you can vet the information.

But you attribute it to a candidate. It's - they're taking responsibility for it. It's a different circumstance when a campaign or some other political operative comes to a reporter and says you can get an exclusive scoop, here. You can have an investigation which breaks this thing wide open.

Now, in that circumstance, surely no reporter worth his or her salt would do that story without carefully confirming everything and seeing whether it's fair, whether the context is accurate.

HAGAN: Right, well, that's - that is absolutely true. You know, there was a lot of speculation about this last fall when Herman Cain came under pressure from charges that he had had sexual harassment claims against him, you know, whether or not that came from an opposing candidate. And Politico did a story in which they did a lot of due diligence around it, wherever it came from.

But a lot of what's going on now is not just secret stories like that. It's like I'm the campaign coming to you with a piece of video or some audio or things that they don't even really have to fact-check that much. I mean, it's like here it is, and why don't you run with this?

I mean, they're providing them not just tips about sort of, you know, radioactive, really negative, bad stories that could lead to the opposition being knee-capped for good, but video content and archival information that they can use in their pieces, like, you know, quotes and videos and things that they dug up that show Newt Gingrich saying something in, you know, 1998 that the reporter never would have found on his own.

So it's not just sort of Deep Throat kind of information. It's just a daily barrage of well-researched information.

DAVIES: And if the reporter takes the video, they can get some attention, have a little mini-scoop. If they ignore it, somebody else gets it.

HAGAN: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. You know, what we're talking about right now, you know, in the past, I think that a lot of this was more secretive. It's always happened, you know, through the ages, like, you know, reporters getting something really - some damaging information leaked to them, and then they're going to go use that as a basis for research.

But you can go on Twitter now, and you can see - the Democratic opposition researcher that I follow has a Twitter feed. You know, his description of himself is I ruin lives. It's a living. You know, this is like - it's all out in the open if you can go follow it and find it.

Ben Smith of Politico and Buzzfeed, all day long, he's sort of churning this stuff from these people. Like on Friday, he posted a nine-minute audio clip of a phone call that Newt Gingrich had with his wife about some politics. You know, where did he come up with this stuff?

And I myself have received these calls. I mean, you get a call from an opposition researcher, hey, you want a little photograph or a clip or this or that, and you can post it on Twitter or write a little item about it? I mean, all day long there's this churn going on. And the reporters have these, you know, day-to-day conversations and relationships with these opposition researchers.

They go out for drinks with them. They learn things. And, you know, this has been going on in the past, but now it's much more out in the open. There are more of those opposition researchers, and there are maybe less of the reporters. So, you know, the power here, in many cases, you know, on the day-to-day reporting in the news cycle, is with these opposition researchers. They're very powerful.

DAVIES: Our guest is investigative reporter Joe Hagan. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with investigative reporter Joe Hagan. He's just written about the growth of superPACs and negative campaigning in the presidential campaign in New York Magazine.

You know, some of the really powerful messages that we've seen in the Republican primaries have been, you know, Gingrich attacking Mitt Romney as, you know, a filthy rich 1-percenter who doesn't, you know, pay enough taxes and who got rich, you know, laying people off. He attacks Gingrich as a consummate Washington insider who has kind of a history of maybe some self-dealing and some character issues.

Are - do these ads deal in inaccuracies, or simply kind of selective recitation of stuff that's out there?

HAGAN: Those ads are more about emphasizing a label onto the opposition and make it stick. I mean, and as soon as the - you know, the press is sort of like the moderator in this, you know, over whether this is going to stick. And the, you know, I talk about in my story this availability, heuristic - which is a term they use in psychology. It's about like if you repeat a message over and over and over again, and it's the most available message that the voter or viewer or reader has about a subject, then that will stick in their mind, as that is the sum total of what they know about a person.

For instance, if I say that Gingrich is a Washington insider a million times, and I can afford to put it on TV a million times, at some point, the viewer just decides, well, that seems to be what's true. I don't know any better than that. You know, you've said it so many times to me, it's the most available piece of information I have.

So they're simplifying storyline attack lines so that they will travel. And...

DAVIES: You know, I have to ask you, since you spent so much time talking to these folks, how do they feel about what they do - I mean, people who just go about the business of grabbing whatever they can, taking it out of context, messing with people's reputations. What kind of people are they?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HAGAN: Well, they are - they're a mix of different kinds of people, the truth is, but some of them are real cowboys. You know, they're like mercenary characters who see themselves as, like, it's like a game, a game of strategy and warfare. And they kind of love the juice of playing the line and causing controversy and doing all these things.

DAVIES: And they take none of it personally and expect nobody else to take anything personally, right?

HAGAN: Well, that's the thing. And you - I mean, they are - they are definitely a different breed. Let's put it that way. I mean, Stuart Stevens, who is one of the top strategists for Mitt Romney, is a true character. I mean, the guy is an extreme sports nut who has written for television. He really sees himself as a storyteller.

I mean, at the end of the day, he has very - talk about grandiose. I mean, these guys have views of themselves as like able to steer history with their, you know, creative storytelling. And they see - you know, seeing the candidates as so much of like a, you know, the actor in their big Hollywood production.

But let me just - you know, in the end of my story, I talk about the - what I call the presidential election industrial complex. You know, these people, they come and go every election cycle. It's the same, you know, dozen consultants, strategists and ad-makers working for these people all the time, doing the same things.

And, you know, one ad-maker, Fred Davis, told me, you know, we're not in the cause business, right. You're in love with whoever's paying you. I mean, that's how mercenary these guys are.

You know, I think some of them do believe in what they're doing, and there may be a price over the long term for some of this negative stuff. It may turn out that people are so sick to death after this primary is done with of all the negative ads and all the attack and all the sort of blustery reality TV show stuff that they'll be ready for, you know, some kind of positive message or to hear something other than the latest attack.

But, you know, given the sort of American public's attention span and the bar for entertainment is pretty high at this point, it's hard to know.

DAVIES: Another thing I wanted to ask was, you know, with a lot of people, particularly younger people, watching TV less and getting videos from, you know, other media, Facebook, YouTube, whatever, I mean, will that undermine the effectiveness of the 30-second TV spot? Are the consultants thinking about that?

HAGAN: Oh, definitely. I mean, the Romney camp sure showed me a report that kind of gets into all this. And they recognize that people between, you know, 18 years old and into their 30s are not getting most of their video content from live television.

And so the suggestion was we need to drill down more into other kinds of media: video online, Facebook, Twitter, you name it. But these guys are very old-school and traditional people in many ways, and they recognize that they have all this donor money, like the - especially the superPACs. They have all this donor money that they need to spend, and they need to show that they have spent it.

And what they often do is default back to TV. They default back to the 30-second commercial, because it costs a lot of money. You can show your donors, hey, we spent your money, and look what we spent it on, and maybe it moved the needle a little bit. And as we talked about before and as we've seen, they're just running more TV ads, not less.

And they're still spending money on, you know, putting ads way down into the sort of like, you know, niche social media things, like they're going to have ads in, like, Mafia Wars on Facebook, you know, trying to reach younger people.

One person at Priorities USA, the superPAC supporting Obama, was telling me, you know, they recognize that a lot of people, grandparents are reaching their kids and grandchildren through Facebook. So they're going to try to, like, you know, really hone in on that older crowd on Facebook with ads.

But bottom line is money has to be spent, and it costs more to spend - it costs more to run TV ads. And so they kind of end up defaulting to running more and more TV ads.

DAVIES: You know, Karl Rove is an interesting character in all of this because he, of course, is a, you know, a legendary political operative who has organized these vehicles - you know, American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS - which have contributed tens of millions to candidates. He's also a media figure. I mean, is - does what he - do his appearances on Fox News - how do his appearances on Fox News fit into what he does?

HAGAN: Oh, I think they're integral to it. You know, I profiled Karl Rove last year and wrote a little bit about this. His - he has - his main interest is keeping his ties to donors. You know, he's got a huge Rolodex of very wealthy Texas oilmen and women who are sort of the life's blood of, you know, the political process on his - in his neck of the woods.

So a lot of them - and when conversations I had with them - were given confidence to give money to any kind of organization that he would be leading because he's constantly telegraphing strategy on Fox News. They saw him as, like, you know, he's got the smart way forward for our party.

And so he's in both the position of using his media platform to collect money and to kind of lead as sort of strategic captain of that money and where to direct it. Now, he's always saying that I'm the co-founder of it, but I'm not - you know, he's an advisor to it. He's not running it, right. But he is the one creating the strategy for how to go about, you know, directing that money at Obama, for instance.

You know, if you read his columns in the Wall Street Journal or listen to things he says on Fox, he's constantly outlining a strategy for how to go after the opposition. And clearly, the superPAC that he is associated with is prepared to carry out those strategic plans.

So there's a real, I think, synthesis here, maybe a questionable one, between his platform that he's been given by Rupert Murdoch's news organs(ph) and his ability to direct millions of dollars in donor money.

DAVIES: Well, Joe Hagan, it's been interesting. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

HAGAN: Thank you very much for having me.

GROSS: Joe Hagan spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Hagan's article about superPACs, "The Coming Tsunami of Slime," is published in New York magazine. You'll find a link on our website: freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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