Bush Team Orchestrates Larger Ad Campaign

Bush Team Orchestrates Larger Ad Campaign (AP)

President Bush’s political team is orchestrating a vastly larger advertising campaign than thought possible under federal law, taking control of millions in Republican Party funds simply by inserting the phrase “our leaders in Congress” in selected commercials. The GOP strategy had gone unnoticed for weeks by Sen. John Kerry and the Democrats, who now may abandon their own less cost-efficient approach to advertising. Ken Mehlman, Bush’s campaign manager, said in an interview that federal election law allows the campaign access to party money “provided that your message is broader than the individual candidate and includes a discussion of the overall agenda and the message of the party.” The Republican National Committee has $93 million on hand.

This month the Republicans began airing television and radio commercials paid for jointly by the president’s re-election campaign and the RNC and including the words “our leaders in Congress.” The ads say Bush and congressional leaders have plans to strengthen homeland security, expand the economy and reduce health care costs. Some also attack Kerry and “the liberals in Congress.” The president appears briefly in each of the TV ads and his voice is heard in the radio commercials.

Federal law limits overall spending by presidential candidates to about $75 million for the general election campaign, including advertising. In addition, the political parties can spend $16 million on campaign activities — TV and radio commercials included — in coordination with their presidential candidates. Republicans, however, say the cost of ads that mention congressional leaders or broadly partisan tags such as “liberals” can be split between the re-election campaign and the RNC without counting toward the $16 million party limit. The presidential campaign does have to count its share of the cost against its $75 million spending limit, but the campaign gains the ability to control a larger budget as well as the message in the ads. The ads have been made by Maverick Media, a production company headed by Bush’s ad-maker, Mark McKinnon.
Jano Cabrera, a Democratic National Committee spokesman, said Democratic officials were unfamiliar with the GOP ad strategy until asked about it by a reporter. “We do not discuss our future ad strategy,” Cabrera said, but other Democratic officials said the party was quickly looking into following the Republicans’ lead.


The ads mostly are appearing on network affiliates in contested presidential battlegrounds such as Iowa, Florida and Ohio. They aren’t on the air in states that aren’t contested in the presidential race even if those states have competitive House or Senate races. And, Bush’s campaign — not the RNC — issues news releases about them. The Web site address in the ads also links viewers back to a page on the president’s campaign Web site. The ads give the party a three-for-one message, supporting Bush and GOP candidates for the House and Senate at a time when Republicans are working to keep control of the White House and both chambers of Congress.

Arizona Sen. John McCain, who co-sponsored the campaign finance reform law that banned parties from collecting unlimited money from corporations, unions and other special interests, said in a statement that the joint ads raise legal questions that “must be dealt with.” However, he said those questions — such as whether the ads should count toward the $16 million limit or whether the strategy is allowed in a publicly funded presidential campaign — “still pale in comparison to the evils of the former corrupt soft money system.” The Federal Election Commission did not raise any immediate objection the strategy, but campaign finance experts are divided over its legality.

This move clearly violates the spirit of McCain-Feingold but strikes me as perfectly legal. It’s just more evidence that attempts to stifle political speech during campaigns just doesn’t work: someone will always find a loophole. The Clinton campaign was the first to exploit the soft money loophole in a flagrant way. Now, the Bush team is the first to realize an obvious way around a different restriction.

Meanwhile, the Kerry campaign is apparently pursuing the opposite strategy:

Kerry Pulls Campaign Ads From Four States

Bowing to political realities, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry has canceled plans to begin broadcasting television commercials in Arizona, Arkansas, Louisiana and the perennial battleground of Missouri. The decision to shrink his political playing field reduces Kerry’s strategic options — at least for now — in the homestretch of the campaign. George W. Bush won all four states in 2000, and Kerry can’t win the White House without taking a state or two from the Republican incumbent. While pulling back from some states that Bush carried, Kerry is still strongly competing in several GOP-leaning battlegrounds, including Ohio, Florida, Colorado and Nevada.

Ads were scheduled to begin airing Oct. 5 in Arizona, Arkansas, Louisiana and Missouri as part of a $5 million investment through Nov. 2, but campaign advisers concluded Kerry isn’t doing well enough in the states to justify the cost. The campaign, which has reserved commercial time in 20 states through Election Day, notified television stations in the four states that Kerry would not follow through on his plans for the first week of October. Plans are still in place to air ads starting the second week of October, campaign officials said, but those will likely be tabled, too.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Arizona, Arkansas and Louisiana are unlikely to see Kerry ads unless there is a major shift in the campaign’s dynamics. Missouri is still the subject of debate inside the campaign, with some advisers pushing to advertise in the traditional swing state. With its burgeoning exurbs and rural areas turning more Republican every day, Missouri cannot be won by Kerry in a close race, some advisers have concluded. But some think it’s important for the Democrat to spend money there, forcing President Bushto defend the GOP turf.

Bush and the Republican National Committee have been advertising moderately in Arizona and Missouri. With Kerry chased from those states, Bush can shift their budgets — $330,000 this week alone — to states that Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore won four years ago.

Stunning. This essentially means the Kerry camp is pinning all their hopes on Florida.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Peter Samwel says:

    I say do away with such laws altogether, as they obviously will never be “fool-proof” regulated.

    Hell, if Americans are stupid enough to give these campaigns enough money to carpet bomb viewers with non-informative, pedantic infomercials then by all means let the ignoramus-fest begin.

  2. Rodney Dill says:

    … as aside, this demonstrates another valuable aspect of the electoral college. If we went only on the popular vote, Kerry would just focus on spending money and making promises in California and New York to gain just numerical quantity of votes.

  3. Even if Kerry should take Florida (which is extremely unlikely in my opinion), Bush very well may still win the election.

    My calculations have him at 274 if he holds all 2000 states except New Hampshire. Losing Florida would take him down to 247. But he currently leads in Iowa (7), Wisconsin (10), New Mexico (5) and Pennsylvania (21). PA + 1 more = victory. IA, WI and NM = electoral tie.

    The Colorado situation does mess these calculations up a bit, but lets just ignore that for now…I don’t think it could stand anyways.

  4. Doug Halsted says:

    I agree that we need to get rid of McCain-Feingold. How about forcing candidates to start the process later? Push back the primaries a few months with the conventions right after, say late August. Then there would only be 2 months of non-stop political ads. I live in Iowa and you can’t turn on a TV or radio without hearing one or the other.

    FYI: Even staged, rehearsed, and edited; Kerry still sounds like a pompous ass.