Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Interest groups play greater role in primary campaign

Courtesy of rottinam/Flickr

With the dawn of Super PACs, the intersection of moneyed interest groups and politics has become a focal point this presidential primary season. In a state the size of Florida, where political campaigns are better served by targeting voters over the airwaves than at town halls, as has been the case in the prior contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, financial resources have played perhaps no greater role yet this year than they likely will in Tuesday’s Florida primary.

“Florida is a huge media market. The others are puny by comparison,” said University of Massachusetts professor of American politics Ray La Raja.

La Raja explained that in a state the size of Florida, whose population dwarfs that of the three states that have hosted primaries thus far, the candidates will need not only a skilled campaign, but also vast financial resources to target voters in the right places.

With a population of just under 20 million, Florida doubles that of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina combined. Accordingly, there are 50 delegates at stake, significantly greater than any previous contest.

According to UMass assistant professor of American politics Jesse Rhodes, TV ads make a difference primarily by providing voters with negative information about candidates. Attack ads are common, and create a back and forth exchange during commercial breaks on television, radio, and even streaming Web services like YouTube.

In Florida, Romney’s campaign and the pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future bought $13.8 million worth of airtime, compared to Gingrich and pro-Gingrich super PAC Winning Our Future, whose expenditures totaled $3.8 million, according to ABC News’ Michael Falcone Friday.

“Newt Gingrich is not just getting outspent by Mitt Romney and his allies on the Florida airwaves, he’s getting creamed,” wrote Falcone.

However Rhodes, responding in an email, said he doubts generally whether advertising is becoming more effective on an audience that exercises “more control over what they watch on TV (due to the Internet, TiVo, and other technologies), and because there is a lot more dissection of ads (whether they are ‘true’ or not) in the media.”

UMass journalism professor Steve Fox, a former online editor at the Washington Post, said he’s always resented money’s role in politics and encouraged students to seek a variety of news sources such as newspapers, political blogs and sites set up to fact check politicians to ensure students are properly informed.

“Still,” said Rhodes, “there is venerable literature in political science that suggests that campaign ads, especially negative ads, can increase voters’ knowledge of candidates and even stimulate turnout.”

But, according to La Raja, in primaries where what is at stake is less a matter of which party individuals are voting for (in Florida, only registered Republicans can cast ballots in the GOP contest), advertising does play a greater role in swaying voters than it will come November in the presidential election.

“TV ads tend to make a bigger difference in primaries because voters don’t have the party cue.  Most partisan voters aren’t affected by TV ads — they vote with their candidates no matter what.  But primaries are different because it’s all about personality and who is ‘purest’ in the eyes of partisan voters,” La Raja said.

Unlike Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, where retail politics took candidates to greasy diners and school cafeterias for handshakes and photo-ops, candidates politicking ahead of Tuesday’s Florida primary have relied on the state’s ten massive media markets to win votes in living rooms, on car stereos, and on social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Google.

But advertising is expensive, and a cash-cow for media companies as the nation turns its focus to the Sunshine State before its voters go to the polls tomorrow.

In South Carolina, former Georgia Rep. Newt Gingrich defeated former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney following a late surge in popularity on the heels of two poised debate performances days before the vote.

In two Florida debates, the twenty-fourth and the twenty-fifth between the Republican contenders since May, an unprecedented number that has spurred conversation on what can be done to reel in this number come 2016, Mr. Romney’s sharpened performances with the help of a new consultant within the campaign has helped check Gingrich’s rise in popularity. A Miami Herald poll Sunday showed Romney boasting an 11-point lead. However, for all candidates, the debates remain a valuable and otherwise costly vehicle to mass exposure and a window to offer personal responses.

“The real issue is the gap in finances between candidates,” said La Raja. “Candidates need to have money to respond to attack ads. If they go unanswered, they lose votes.  So Gingrich really benefitted from the ‘new’ system of Super PACs in which a wealthy friend can give him $10 million. He still is behind in the money chase, but at least he can answer the attack ads from Romney.”

The pro-Gingrich super Political Action Committee Winning Our Future, one of many newly formed political activist organizations made possible by the controversial Citizens United legislation passed two years ago, which allows wealthy donors to contribute unlimited funds in support of political campaigns through independent third parties, has received a total contribution of $10 million in two separate donations from Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and Adelson’s wife.

“Having more money almost always helps, because it allows candidates to buy more ads in more (and more expensive) ad markets,” said Rhodes, adding that advertising presence creates both the impression of support and, in so doing, garners additional resources from other donors.

“It’s important to understand that while ads can lead to more money, more money allows you to post more ads. In other words, money is both a potential cause of more support, and an indicator of preexisting support. Candidates can be hurt by lack of money for ads if an opponent relentlessly hammers them with a negative message and they don’t have the resources to respond; in this case, voters are more likely to remember the negative message,” Rhodes explained.

Such was the case in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, where Romney’s campaign and Restore Our Future blindsided Gingrich with a barrage of attack ads ridiculing the Georgia lawmaker’s ethically-tainted record as Speaker of the House and Gingrich saw his numbers rapidly plummet en route to a third-place finish behind Romney, who finished second, and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who won by a 34-vote margin.

Rhodes said he sees super PACs obscuring the relationship between money, politics and special interest groups.

“Changing campaign finance rules and Supreme Court decisions means that there is more room, and more money, for officially uncoordinated, but arguably tactically affiliated, groups to play a role in campaigning,” said Rhodes.

“This can be worrisome because these groups are harder to hold accountable for what they say and do – unlike candidates, you can’t easily ‘punish’ them at the ballot box. Also, these groups tend to be much more negative in terms of their messaging because, again, they can’t be penalized for doing so,” said Rhodes.

“It’s important to realize, though that there has been a trend over time toward more money going to these kinds of activities for several election cycles, as elections have become more polarizing and high-stakes. Groups on all sides have been constantly innovating to find ways to get as much money as possible into politics,” said Rhodes.

Louise Dunphy a 1976 UMass alumnus and volunteer disc jockey at WMUA-FM 91.1 radio, said she doesn’t believe the country can move forward in a positive way without removing money from politics.

“Everything is about money now, and it’s a force we’re going to have to reckon with,” said Dunphy.

Lauren Shewey, a 21-year-old senior UMass public health major, said in her eyes money is power, and that she feels people of lower socioeconomic status are adversely affected by that dynamic.

Once on a seemingly brisk clip to the nomination, Romney’s road to the GOP ticket has become much different than initially expected, as a recount in Iowa crowned Santorum the victor and Gingrich’s surprise victory in South Carolina set the tally to one apiece, prolonging a race that some pundits saw wrapping up by the Jan. 31 primary.

Looking forward after Tuesday’s Florida primary, campaign war chests portend to play an increased role in the nomination race as upcoming contests, like Nevada and Maine’s Feb. 4 caucuses, become more frequent and more expensive and the field crisscrosses the nation hoping to appeal to voters on the ground.

Brian Canova can be reached at [email protected] or followed on Twitter @BrianCanova.


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