SO FAR THE DEMOCRATS' MAGIC BULlet seems to be falling short.
Ever since the McCain Feingold campaign-finance legislation passed, Democrats have looked to so-called 527 groups--named after a part of the tax code that allows groups to raise unlimited sums and make independent expenditures on issues--to save them from cash shortfalls (specifically for advertising) that resulted from the reforms. Republicans, worried about their use, condemned the 527s as a "shadow Democratic Party" and demanded that the Federal Election Commission prevent them from airing ads.
But two months after Super Tuesday effectively ended the Democratic primary season, both sides have been proven wrong. Several 527s have already spent most of the money they'd raised for advertising. One, disappointed in fund raising, has dramatically scaled back its ambitions. Another is making plans to decommission after it runs through its remaining cash on hand. Yet another considers itself right on track, though it has spent less than $1 million so far--a relative pittance in a campaign of $25 million ad buys. What's more, John Kerry's unprecedented ability to raise money and launch his own paid media campaign so quickly after the primaries has made the 527s less central in the Bush-Kerry media war than anyone expected them to be.
To begin with, only three of the Democratic 527s wound up focusing primarily on television advertising: the Media Fund, founded by former Clinton deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes; the MoveOn.org Voter Fund, started by the liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org to do issue ads; and the New Democrat Network's (NDN) 527, run by Simon Rosenberg as a supplement to the network's ongoing program of activities to promote Democratic officeholders. The rest of the 527s, such as America Coming Together (ACT), are primarily focused on grass-roots organizing and other activities that neither the Kerry campaign nor the Democratic National Committee (DNC) has the time or legal authority to do. (For example, Kerry had no Ohio field office as of late April, but ACT had been organizing in the state for six months.)
More importantly, the campaign finance laws constraining the 527s--which the Republicans accuse them of violating--have, in fact, successfully kept the 527s from doing anything to actively promote Kerry. When the Bush-Cheney campaign hammered Kerry with a $60 million advertising blitz (the largest amount of money ever spent on early advertising in a presidential race), the 527s responded with an array of issue ads that did nothing to define Kerry or introduce him to voters. The ads focused on such topics as health care, job outsourcing, and the federal budget deficit. The NDN has not mentioned or shown Kerry in any of its ads. Neither has the MoveOn.org Voter Fund. And the Media Fund has included the senator in only one of six spots it has run. Few Media Fund ads addressed the same topics as the Bush ads, and they didn't respond to them in kind.
This is not to blame them. The 527s are prohibited by law from doing express advocacy for a candidate. So instead of campaign ads, they run spots similar to those that Democratic interest groups have historically run during fights over issues such as Medicare reform or prescription-drug pricing. "The 527s can't do comparison ads or pro-Kerry ads," says Bill Zimmerman, a partner in political consulting firm Zimmerman and Markman that created most of the MoveOn.org Voter Fund ads. "We have to focus on issues, and as a result we are focusing on issues that raise questions about the Bush administration." That means that while President Bush homed in on Kerry's character and personality with a unified $60 million message, the 527s were fighting back in a scattershot way, raising questions about Bush's policies but unable to defend their candidate personally.
In addition to message, though, there's also the problem of money. The immediate post-Super Tuesday push substantially depleted the 527s' treasuries. …