Attacking in Groups: Where Independent Expenditures Against Candidates Come Together
This spring, the money hounds of wealthy and corporate America were unleashed by the Supreme Court, let go to spend unlimited amounts on political campaigns without disclosing the sources of their funds. As a result, the 2010 election season has seen an explosion of “independent expenditures” used to attack congressional candidates. While we can’t know who’s funding these attacks, thanks to the Federal Election Commission we can at least know the names of the front groups that are mounting them. FEC data show that some of these front groups go solo in attacking congressional candidates, choosing targets that attract no one else’s attention. But a larger number of these shadowy attack groups (whether by coincidence or by design) are acting in concert.
From January 1 2009 through last Friday, October 1 2010, there had been 2521 funded attacks against congressional candidates reported to the FEC. These attacks targeted 185 congressional candidates and were carried out by 72 political front groups. 16 of these groups acted alone in targeting candidates. The other 56 groups acted to a greater or lesser degree in concert with one another.
We can measure the extent to which any two of these groups act in concert by calculating a correlation. For each of the 185 congressional candidates attacked, do Group A and Group B always choose the same targets (correlation 1.0), do they never choose the same targets (correlation 0.0), or do they sometimes but not always pick the same targets (a correlation between 0.0 and 1.0)? In the graph below, lines are drawn between political front groups whose patterns of attack ads from January 1 2009 through October 1 2010 reach at least a correlation of 0.5:
30 out of the 72 groups making independent expenditures are strongly correlated in the profile of their attacks with at least one other group. 13 out of the 30 groups (here colored blue) exclusively attacked Republican candidates. 2 of those, the National Organization for Marriage and the Campaign for Working Families, attacked Republican Senate primary contender candidate Tom Campbell who supported the legalization of gay marriage. The other 11 groups attacking Republicans did so from the left. The 17 groups who exclusively attacked Democratic candidates (here colored red) have all done so from the right. Not one of these groups, in case you’re wondering, attacked both Republicans and Democrats; each picked a side and stuck to it.
Groups attacking from the right aren’t only larger in number, but also work more closely in concert with one another than groups attacking from the left. There are no triads on the left — no sets of three front groups that are each acting in concert with the other two. The closest that groups on the left come to a coordinated structure of attacks is a chain of five groups, from Commonsense Ten through Women Vote!, AFSCME and the League of Conservation Voters to the AFL-CIO. But the chain is only serially connected, with each member’s attacks strongly correlated with no more than two other groups in the set.
On the right, the existence of a triad of front groups is notable: Move America Forward, Fairtax Political Action and the National Republican Trust PAC all oppose conservative Democrat Mark Critz for not being conservative enough. But this coordinated clique is nothing compared to the anti-Democratic supercluster. Seven groups…
1. The American Political Action Committee
2. DUMP REID (an acronym for Decidedly Unhappy Mainstream Patriots Rejecting Evilmongering Incompetent Democrats)
3. Tea Party Express
4. The First Amendment Alliance
5. Americans for New Leadership
6. The Coalition to Protect Seniors and
7. The Republican Majority Campaign
… are part of a tight-knit group of correlated attacks against Democratic congressional candidates. Whether this correlation is just a highly curious matter of unlikely happenstance or of intentional coordination in a right-wing conspiracy is a matter yet to be seen — or rather, not to be seen. After all, the names of donors to these groups are new secrets to be kept guarded, close to the campaign warchest.