Groups spend millions bypassing TV, radio

WASHINGTON -- As the presidential campaign heads into its final days, hundreds of workers are knocking on doors and calling voters in Wisconsin, trying to persuade them to vote for Democrat Barack Obama.

They don't work for the Obama campaign. They're hired by Advancing Wisconsin, a new liberal group that has reported spending more than $550,000 this month in support of Obama. None of that money has gone for radio or TV ads.

"We leave that to other people," says Mike Tate, founder of Advancing Wisconsin. "We think what's an effective tool is going out and knocking on people's doors and talking to people."

Although political radio and TV ads get the most attention, Federal Election Commission (FEC) records show that independent political groups are spending millions of dollars in the presidential campaign on canvassing, direct mail, live and automated phone calls, e-mails and text messages.

Independent groups spent more than $13.4 million on those activities in support or opposition to Obama or Republican John McCain from Sept. 5, when the political conventions ended, through Tuesday, a USA TODAY analysis of FEC records shows.

That spending heavily favors Obama: $9.1 million went for activities helping Obama and $4.3 million for McCain, the analysis shows.

Much of that advantage is thanks to the Service Employees International Union, which poured more than $4.8 million into door-to-door canvassing since the conventions, FEC records show. Anna Burger, SEIU's secretary-treasurer, said the union has "thousands of members (knocking) on the doors."

One of McCain's biggest supporters is the National Right to Life Political Action Committee, which spent more than $1.2 million on pro-McCain mailings. "Millions upon millions of unborn babies will die if Barack Obama is elected president," the group's website says.

Independent groups are turning away from broadcast ads because they're expensive and don't necessarily reach the target audience, Democratic political consultant Marty Stone says.

Voters who haven't been contacted yet can expect to be before the election. A national survey by the Pew Research Center in 2006 found that 71% of voters got political mail and 64% got a recorded phone message in the two months before the election.

The under-the-radar forms of voter contacts can be vehicles for nasty rhetoric, says Dennis Johnson, associate dean of the School of Political Management at George Washington University.

"We have a very distinct difference between what you can say on television and what you can say in a direct-mail piece or some other device," Johnson says.

The source for some of those claims is a conservative group called the National Campaign Fund, which FEC records show has spent more than $1.2 million on anti-Obama messages this year. The group's website and e-mails to supporters include dubious accusations ("Why is Obama afraid to admit he was born and raised a Muslim?") and bizarre claims ("Obama uses hypnosis to direct his followers").

"We're coming in and saying some things that maybe McCain can't say," says Jim Lacy, the National Campaign Fund's treasurer and co-founder. The group's other co-founder, Floyd Brown, says the group is not spreading false attacks. "If there's anything on our site that's not documented, factual and true, I'll take it down," Brown says. "I think the record is pretty clear. What we've done is very well documented."

Obama is a Christian.

On the other side, two liberal groups have produced an Internet video that begins with a picture of McCain after a bout with skin cancer in 2000 with the words, "John McCain is 72 years old and had cancer 4 times." The Brave New PAC and Democracy for America, a group founded by Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean and run by his brother, split the costs of briefly running the ad on MSNBC last month. Republican National Committee spokesman Danny Diaz released a statement calling it a "despicable and cheap smear."

The Price of Power is an ongoing series tracking the role of money in politics. Contributing: Ken Dilanian.