Political Parties Cede Campaign Power to Outside Groups

Non-party groups to outspend political parties in 2010, reversing trend.

WASHINGTON, Oct. 26, 2010— -- Non-party groups that have dominated the midterm campaign are about to eclipse national political parties in total reportable spending this election cycle, a review of Federal Election Commission data finds.

The milestone would mark an end to the supremacy of political parties in campaign spending compared to outside groups, possibly for the first time in history.

Non-party groups, such as the nonprofit U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the labor union American Federation of State and Municipal Employees, have spent roughly $205 million through Oct. 22, nearly surpassing the total spending by parties in 2008, according to the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute.

Political parties have only spent $115 million in this election cycle, down 34 percent from what they spent in each of the past two election cycles. In 2008, parties spent double their non-party counterparts, and in 2006, they spent more than quadruple.

The year-over-year decline in party campaign spending, coupled with the skyrocketing infusions of cash by non-party groups, raises questions about whether the traditional party organizations are losing influence in election campaigns.

Experts concede that broadly, in terms of money alone, the parties' dominance has faded in this election cycle.

"Had outside spending not increased so much, it's possible traditional party groups would have seen more money flowing their way," said Dave Levinthal of the Center for Responsive Politics.

Liberals and conservatives have formed their own political action groups to advance their unique interests and to take advantage of different, often less-restrictive rules for how they can raise and spend money.

American Crossroads, a "super PAC" with ties to Karl Rove, for example, formed as an alternative campaign outlet for "donors who wanted to give more than the maximum allowed to the RNC [Republican National Committee]," said spokesman Jonathan Collegio. The group has to disclose its donors but isn't subjected to donation limits.

"It was a plan to combat what the left had done so successfully with MoveOn.org and other groups in the 2008 elections," Collegio said.

These outside groups have also taken some control over campaign strategy away from traditional party leaders and individual candidates, independently coordinating their efforts to determine how and where to spend their funds.

Some Republican non-party groups have weekly strategy sessions and regular conference calls to orchestrate plans for individual races, much as national parties have traditionally done, The New York Times has reported.

"What it's doing is creating a couple of power centers within the parties," said Steve Ansolabehere, a political scientist at Harvard University, of the new dynamic. "But it's not necessarily taking money away from the parties overall or their ability to message effectively."

"These organizations that are spending money independently are doing exactly the same thing as parties," said Ansolabehere. "When all is said and done after this election, we're going to look at those organizations and they're going to look like parties. It's just going to be another way money is flowing into campaigns."

Parties Have 'Plenty of Bullets' Left

The new dynamic has been perhaps most apparent within the Republican National Committee, where divisions over party leadership have simmered even at a time when the party is poised for big gains.

"Many congressional Republicans and governors no longer trust [RNC chairman Michael] Steele as their spokesman," wrote Fred Barnes, executive editor of The Weekly Standard, in a Wall Street Journal column. "They tend to work around the RNC rather than engage Mr. Steele."

"What the RNC isn't doing, well-financed outside groups like Americans for Prosperity and the Republican Governor's Association are," he said.

But how long this fractured relationship will continue is unclear.

"On the Republican side what we are seeing is an abnormality, a chasm between the RNC chairman and the rest of the establishment," said Meredith McGehee of the Campaign Legal Center, suggesting that the dynamic could return to the status quo in 2012.

In the meantime, national party leaders caution that they should not be counted out.

"The parties have become, I think, much more relevant in some subtle ways having to do with information processing and micro-targeting," said Ansolabehere.

The parties' extensive voter e-mail databases and networks with state party groups, which can help mobilize supporters and hone messaging, are advantages not held by outside groups, he said.

"The parties can come in with information that the candidates just didn't have and say we can run this and do it very well."

The parties also continue to demonstrate robust fundraising and play an important role in political messaging in the campaign. The Democratic National Committee has sent about $6.6 million to each of its House and Senate campaign committees, according to the Hotline's Jeremy Jacobs, while the RNC has transferred $2 million to its House and Senate campaign arms.

The DNC had $13.4 million on hand heading into the final month of the campaign, and the RNC had $4.6 million, according to Federal Election Commission reports.

Brendan Glavin of the Campaign Finance Institute cautioned that the sizable disparity in spending between non-party and party groups this year could be misleading.

"It's not as if it's all new money in the campaign," said Glavin. "In the past, some of this money was already in the system, but it wasn't reported." He noted that disclosure requirements make it difficult to track the change.

Bottom line? The parties still have "plenty of bullets left in their clip," said Levinthal.