Political campaigns go to great lengths to draft the perfect political message and present the most appealing image of their candidates. But outside influence has always clouded the voter's perspective. During the country's infancy, that blurriness was partly due to the amount of liquor those candidates served up for their constituents come election time. Campaigns called it "swilling the planters with bumbo." When George Washington first ran for the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1755, he opted for a more puritanical approach and skimped on the booze. He lost. Three years later, he ponied up roughly 160 gallons of rum, cider and beer for several hundred voters. He won.
The picture's even muddier today, due not to the lavish wining and dining by the candidates but by the volume of outside interests. Third parties are exercising their own influence over the voter with ever-increasing amounts of cash, twisting sound bites and distorting voting records through an endless mirage of television ads, radio spots, mailers and websites. The past year has seen unprecedented levels of political spending and an unparalleled lack of transparency. The candidates' own messages have often been hijacked by outside groups with deep-pocketed donors. The result is messaging that becomes warped and fractal. In 2012, voters may as well be watching the campaigns through a kaleidoscope.
"We're seeing a lot more by groups like Crossroads GPS and Patriot Majority and some others that just don't disclose their donors," says Bill Allison, editorial director for the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit dedicated to pushing for more transparency in modern campaigning. "Citizens just have no idea where the money is coming from that's behind these ads."
Much of the blame for this fractured new political frontier has fallen on the U.S. Supreme Court's January 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. That decision freed labor unions, trade organizations and corporations to spend unlimited amounts of cash on political speech. Citizens United was narrow, however, and had little bite without the ruling issued two months later by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals in SpeechNow.org v. FEC. The court's finding lifted existing limits on contributions to certain political action committees and opened the door for tax-exempt organizations to accept unlimited cash.
"It's that case that said that unions and corporations could give without limit to what are called independent expenditure PACs," says Jim Lopach, a University of Montana political science professor specializing in constitutional law.
In short, the two cases combined helped create the now-infamous super PAC, and gave rise to an era of what many call "dark money."
These outside influences have already taken a noticeable toll on Montana's Senate race, where Democratic incumbent Jon Tester is facing off against Republican Congressman Denny Rehberg. Both candidates combined have raised just over $15 million, and have spent around $8.7 million. Third party organizations have, by comparison, spent well over $11 million. Much of the time, where that money's coming from is anyone's guess.
An old staple
In mid September, the National Republican Senatorial Committee launched an ad attacking Tester for supporting an estate tax levied on property inherited in the event of a relative's death. The ad featured fourth-generation Billings rancher Turk Stovall, who visibly choked up when talking about the financial burden placed on his family after his father's death in late 2011. "Since we're getting taxed by him dying, we could lose the whole outfit that him and my mom spent a lifetime putting together," Stovall says in the ad. Stovall went on to claim that Tester had voted for the estate tax, and that "he's voting for his party, not Montanans."
The NRSC spent nearly $136,670 on the ad, which was also packaged for radio and a shorter televised version.
The estate tax, or "death tax" as it's commonly referred to by conservatives, has been a favorite talking point of Rehberg's during the current campaign. He's shared his own story about the Rehberg family ranch getting heavily taxed in the wake of his great-grandmother's death. The claim was challenged in a recent High Country News feature, which quoted court documents indicating the family paid 17 percent of the estate's value—about $32,000when Rehberg's grandmother died in 1974. HCN went on to report that, following the death of Rehberg's great-grandmother in 1976, there's "no indication that an estate tax was paid to the feds."
The NRSC has spent more than $1.6 million since last fall on ads attacking Tester on a variety of issues, from his support for the Affordable Care Act to his votes on several key budget proposals. One of the PAC's first ads, aired last September, was pulled by at least one cable station for containing a factual inaccuracy.
The problem with the NRSC's most recent ad, beyond inflating Rehberg's own message about the "death tax," is that it misconstrues Tester's voting record on the issue. Tester voted this year against repealing the estate tax, instead supporting a measure to extend the Bush-era tax cuts through the end of 2013. Currently, only estates valued at more than $10 million are subject to the estate taxa cap that drops to $1 million if the current tax cuts are allowed to expire this year. Moderates hope that an extra year can buy more time for the parties to reach an agreement on what, exactly, the cap should be.
Groups like the NRSC are a staple in politics and have been around since long before the curtain fell on Citizens United. Political action committees are subject to contribution and expenditure limits, but they operate outside the confines of official campaigns. Trade groups, unions and businesses use them to contribute big dollars to candidates they favor; for example, business-oriented PACs have donated $1.5 million to Tester in 2012. Political parties use them to bolster spending done by candidates on their side of the ticket, as the NRSC did by donating $590,000 to the Montana Republican Party in June. The boost helped fund a $310,000 ad buy touting Rehberg as an "independent thinker" within the GOP.
Some candidates operate their own leadership PACs in order to influence other races at home and elsewhere. Rehberg's Building Our Opportunities Together PAC has spent $7,500 this cycle supporting fellow Republicans Scott Brown in Massachusetts and Dean Heller in Nevada. Heller was listed among the special guests at a $500-per-person Rehberg fundraiser at the NRSC headquarters in D.C. on Sept. 13.
The growing negativity in political advertising has led to PAC-sponsored ads, like the one featuring Stovall, that distort reality or hinge on half-truths. A May study of the tone of political ads, conducted by the ad-tracking Wesleyan Media Project, revealed that the ratio of negative ads to positive ads in presidential races alone jumped from 9 percent in 2008 to 70 percent in 2012. Candidates are often powerless to stop such messaging.
The NRSC's cross-aisle cousin, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, has similarly distorted the truth in 2012. The group consistently knocks Rehberg in television advertisements for voting himself Congressional pay raises five consecutive times, despite promising voters during his unsuccessful 1996 Senate race that he would not. The ads omit the fact that the raise is an automatic cost-of-living increase enacted in 1989, and that Rehberg voted in favor of a congressional pay freeze in 2010.
The Super PACs descend
Two weeks ago, the liberal Majority PAC took its first stab at swinging the Montana Senate race away from Rehberg. The group dropped $521,710.01 on an ad titled "Silver Plate," which claimed Rehberg would be "lost without his lobbyist friends." The ad pointed to a speech before the American League of Lobbyists last October in which Rehberg called lobbyists "honorable," and highlighted the fact that Rehberg "used to be one." The Tester campaign leveled similar accusations against the Republican challenger in late August, using the exact same information.