Many Donors Give to Positions, Not Candidates
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVEN INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
This is a day to explore political power in a number of countries. Cuba's Fidel Castro has resigned, but says this is not his farewell. In Pakistan, President Pervez Musharraf's party has lost an election, though Pervez Musharraf himself remains in office. And in Russia in a moment, we'll hear about a candidate who may or may not really be an opposition candidate. Behind-the-scenes political maneuvering can be pretty obvious.
MONTAGNE: In this country, there are plenty of major players whose names never appear on a ballot. We're talking about campaign donors this week -individuals, corporations, unions and other interest groups. Today, we're discussing outside groups, those independent organizations that are not part of a campaign but can provide candidates with enormous support whether the candidates welcome it or not.
For more, we turn to Stephen Weissman of the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute. It's affiliated with the George Washington University.
Mr. STEPHEN WEISSMAN (Campaign Finance Institute, George Washington University): Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: What is the situation with donors? Why, for instance, would someone who supports a particular candidate donate to one of these groups rather than just right to the candidate or the party?
WEISSMAN: There are limits to what you can give to a candidate. You can give $2,300, for example, to help a presidential candidate during a primary. But, with these independent groups, as long as they don't very directly say support this candidate or don't support this candidate, but they clearly indirectly indicate that that's their thrust, people can give unlimited amounts. People have given millions of dollars.
MONTAGNE: How known are the donors to these groups? Because it would seem that one of their charms would be that it's a little harder to know who the donors are.
WEISSMAN: Well, for some of the groups that have been very prominent in the last few years - so-called 527 groups - there is disclosure mandated by Congress. Increasingly, there are other groups - which are 501 C groups - that you can give the money to anonymously as long as the group isn't spending most of the money on elections.
These are some well-known groups that have been doing this for years, like the United States Chamber of Commerce or the AFL-CIO. And then there are some new, completely unknown groups, one of which is helping round up votes for Senator Obama in the presidential primaries, another of which was helping round up votes for Mike Huckabee.
MONTAGNE: We see the ads, but these outside groups can and, in fact, must, in a way, spend their money in other ways. And some of those ways are quite important to the candidates that they support.
WEISSMAN: The most visible aspect has been ads. But some of the most effective group activities are really what they call the ground war, where you're basically contacting voters directly. You're using very sophisticated marketing techniques in order to zero down on the type of person that you think will support that candidate. You target those people with mail, telephone calls.
For example, in the last presidential election, on the Democratic side, you had America Coming Together, which was basically a voter-mobilization effort that didn't run any ads but spent nearly $100 million.
And on the Republican side, for example, in the primaries now, we have a group called Common Sense Issues, which has been doing what they call push-pull robo calls in favor of Mike Huckabee.
MONTAGNE: It's important to add again that the candidates do distance themselves. Mike Huckabee told us that in the particular case of the group you've just mentioned, he had no connection to them and disapproved of what they were doing.
What outside organizations are emerging as the biggest players in this campaign in 2008?
WEISSMAN: According to their statements, Fund for America, on the Democratic side, they're talking about $100 million.
MONTAGNE: And on the Republican side?
WEISSMAN: On the Republican side, there's a group that already exists, that has already spent at least $15 million in the past year, called Freedom's Watch. That group is a Republican-oriented group. And it's been talking upwards of $100 to $200 million.
MONTAGNE: Steven Weissman is associate director for policy at the Campaign Finance Institute. Thank you for joining us.
WEISSMAN: Okay. Thank you.
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