Interest Groups Spent A Bundle On '96 Campaign Ads
Thompson committee investigating possible improper coordination with parties
WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, Sep. 16) -- Political parties and special interest groups spent an unprecedented $150 million during the 1996 elections on advertisements that supported specific candidates, according to a new study.
The funds were not considered campaign contributions under campaign finance law, though the ads often named particular candidates, showed their pictures and pointedly attacked their opponents. The study, conducted the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, says various interest groups including labor unions and trade groups, and the two major political parties abused a gray area of campaign finance law.
It comes down to semantics, say the report's authors. The groups claim, backed by the courts, that the spots are "issue ads" because they specifically omitted phrases like "vote for" or "cast your ballot for" that explicitly directed viewers to pull the lever for a particular candidate.
Interest groups assert they have a First Amendment right to express their views to the public and that comments and criticism of a specific candidate fall under that category.
The ads are often indistinguishable from ads run by the candidates. But interest groups are not held back by contribution limits or disclosure requirements.
The center studied 107 radio and television ads that aired during 1995 and 1996 and were paid for by 27 groups whose interests ranged from the environment to labor. The report says only 19 percent of the ads simply advocated the position of the sponsor.
Instead, most of the ads either attacked a specific candidate's position or highlighted a favored candidate's position compared to his opponent's stance on the issue.
The Democratic and Republican parties spent a combined total of $78 million on issue ads, about half the overall total.
Issue ads became controversial in 1996 when the AFL-CIO launched a $35 million media campaign that targeted 44 congressional districts, including 32 House districts taken from Democrats by Republicans in the 1994 congressional landslide. (1M QuickTime movie)
Tennessee Republican Fred Thompson's Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, which is investigating alleged campaign finance abuses, is getting into the act. The panel has issued more than 30 subpoenas to interest groups across the political spectrum, trying to determine whether they improperly coordinated their ads with political candidates.
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