Though the 2012 Campaign Decision Makers Conference contains many interesting insights, but perhaps the most informative (and entertaining) conference session given over to independent expenditures, Super PAC spending, during the election. Surprisingly, or not surprisingly at all, it received the least press coverage, if any, of all the conferences. What follows is a transcript from the audio of the proceedings; prior to the transcript is a summary of the proceedings, with footnotes in the summary linking to the relevant parts of the transcript. The transcript in turn is also footnoted for reference and, occasionally, refutation. The transcript does not include pauses or some moments when the speaker begins saying one word, then changes course; occasional, very mild, slips, such as referring to an object in the plural when it should be the singular, have been fixed rather than record them verbatim with an accompanying [sic]; it is, however, an honest attempt at recording the proceedings, with any mistakes without malice. The audio for the proceedings can be found, along with audio for every session, at the link for the Decision Makers Conference.
The players: Gwen Ifill (moderator, from the PBS News Hour); Rick Berke (moderator, editor from the New York Times); from the Super PACs, all of which are pro-Republican except for that of Bill Burton: Brian Baker (Ending Spending Action Fund), Bill Burton (Priorities USA Action and Priorities USA), Carl Forti (American Crossroads), Steven Law (American Crossroads), Nick Ryan (Red, White and Blue Fund), Charlie Spies (Restore our Future). American Crossroads was begun by Karl Rove; Restore Our Future was devoted specifically to the election of Mitt Romney. The Red, White and Blue Fund was devoted to Rick Santorum.
(dialogue in the summary goes unquoted, as it is not intended to be an exact quote, but a succinct representation of what was said)
Gwen Ifill makes an introduction: this will be a conference about money. First question, from Ifill, did it make a big difference?1. Big effect, says Ryan. Without his Super PAC, Santorum wouldn’t have been anywhere as competitive in the primary – you can have a much larger effect in a primary because it’s a smaller race than the general2. Burton also think the impact has been huge, and does not think Romney would have been the nominee without the efforts of Restore Our Future. Law agrees with all this, then points out that American Crossroads anticipated that the Obama campaign would place much of their ad spending to the post-primary summer period in order to define Romney, and that it would fall to American Crossroads to fight back, as the Romney campaign would be low on funds, after heavy primary spending3. Berke: Was Super PAC spending essential to Romney getting the nomination? Law: critical factor, maybe not ultimate factor4. Forti and Spies agree on the huge impact; Forti believes the race would not, in the closing months, have been so close without outside spending. He suggests Gingrich might have been the nominee without outside spending5. Spies: this election shows that it’s not just money that’s important, but when it’s available, and when you can spend it6.
Berke asks about the quality of the Romney campaign, Spies defends it7. Berke hints that Forti was frustrated by the campaign’s conduct, but neither Forti or Law take any swipes – Forti speaks of the huge ad spending disadvantage of the Romney campaign over the summer, and that they always had a good idea of what needed to be done8. Burton points to the Romney campaign’s buying their ad time week by week as a failure, something that must have made the work of every pro-Romney Super PAC very difficult, as they take their messaging cues from the ads bought by the campaign. By not seeing far in advance what message the campaign will be broadcasting over the next few months, they’re unable to plan ahead – this contrasts with the Obama campaign, who bought their ad time well in advance9. Ifill asks Burton: do you regret the “Mitt Romney gave my wife cancer” ad? Burton: the ad did not say Mitt Romney gave anybody cancer, but showed what took place when a company is taken over, and an employee’s expected medical benefits are taken away in a tragic time10. Berke: would you do it again? Burton: it’s difficult to answer a hypothetical question. Berke: it’s not hypothetical. Burton: actually, when you say “would you”, it is11. Ifill brings up the Bain attacks and why they weren’t responded to effectively. Ryan feels that they didn’t have an impact in the primary because of their anti-capitalist quality, though he believes more should have been done in the general against such attacks. Burton disagrees: they did work in the primary, allowing Gingrich to win South Carolina, but he was subsequently outspent in Florida12. Forti: it’s not a Super PAC’s job to defend the candidate; it’s very difficult for Super PACs, due to regulations, to do positive ads, so we do what we do best, attack his opponent13.
Berke: were big donors getting involved in ad messaging? Law: donors wanted a more visceral attack against Obama, but they resisted this, since all their polling suggested that the voters they were trying to attract liked Obama, did not think him extreme, were proud to have voted for him in 2008, but simply had doubts about some of his policies14. Berke brings up the prominence of the biggest donors – Adelson, the Kochs, Foster Friess – and whether their prominence was a distraction. The consultants answer that, in general, they were not a distraction, that the campaigns all happily accept them and their distractiveness in exchange for their money, and that most of the electorate doesn’t even know that they exist – Forti gives an example of his wife as someone disconnected with the political world, someone who doesn’t watch Fox News, who doesn’t even read the New York Times. That’s impossible, says Berke15. Spies argues that the flow of money to Super PACs is not a result of the Citizens United decision, but McCain-Feingold, which moved cash away from parties and towards outside groups16. Burton points out that the problems isn’t large donors having outside influence on campaigns, it’s that men like Adelson get so much face time with the candidate in exchange for their millions, and there is the perception that after an electoral victory, they are given something in return. Burton adds: your donors must be different from ours, because I got all sorts of ad suggestions from mine. Ifill wants to hear a crazy one, but Burton stays chaste: there were ad suggestions for wind power and judges. Judges, says Ifill: that’ll get a lot of votes17.
Berke brings up the story of Joe Ricketts, the major contributor of Super PAC Ending Spending Action Fund, who wanted them to make an ad around Jeremiah Wright. Baker, the head of this Super PAC gives his own version of the events, that the ad was simply a proposal, and that an ad such as that would never have been run because it would have been ineffective. Forti seconds this, admitting that, yes, consideration was given to Wright as an ad subject, but given that they were trying to win over independent voters who were sympathetic to Obama, such an ad would have offended them. Moreover, the potentially incendiary nature of such an ad would have galvanized Obama supporters18. Asked if corporate money played a bigger part this year than before, Forti says compared to 2010. Spies feels that if they’re going to talk about corporate money, they should bring up union money. Burton agrees that unions were an important part of their organization, both in turnout and donations, after which Law observes that it seems that unions were an even more substantial money player than in the past; Burton pointedly disagrees with this – the unions have less of a war chest than they had in the past19. Ifill brings up the president’s initial resistance to Super PACs, and whether this made Burton’s job more difficult; he concedes that yes, it did, that he was worried that the president might come out against them, but eventually, he understood that the rules had very much changed, and a group like Priorities USA is necessary. Following the election victory, more democrats acknowledge the need to have groups to fight back against the army of Super PACs on the republican side. Look at all these guys, and here it’s just me, says Burton20.
Berke asks Fonti and Law to talk about Karl Rove’s role in his Super PAC, American Crossroads. Law explains that Rove brought a number of things to the table, including both the idea that such a Super PAC wouldn’t be a one-time thing, but an on-going project, equivalent to the union funds on the democrat side, and of active collaboration with a wide number of conservative groups. He, Haley Barbour, and Ed Gillespie, all Crossroads associates, all brought great donor contacts as well. Law did not share Rove’s belief that Romney would win the election. Berke asks if it’s harder for Rove to raise money following his meltdown on election night, and Law answers emphatically no. Berke: I mean, he’s been mocked worldwide. Law: we all have our turn in the barrel21. Berke asks if the failed prediction made Crossroads question their reliance on Rove’s strategies. Law rejects this, arguing that Rove is just one of many people at the organization. Law and Forti explain that their strategies are based on research, rather than the ideas of any one individual. Furthermore, they would update their donors every two weeks on what tactics they were using and why. Finally, they emphasize that Rove was just one of many people, including Michael Barone, who called this election wrong22.
Berke and Ifill ask about the tricky legal dance whereby a Super PAC can solicit funds near a campaign fundraiser, but cannot exchange communications with the campaign; Spies distinguishes what one legally can do, which is quite generous, and perceptions of impropriety, which narrows one’s working space. This shifts the conversation to the 47% tape, and whether this brought about a downturn in fundraising – not at all, is the unanimous answer. Afterwards, in the aftermath of Obama’s first debate, there was actually a huge upswing in Romney donations23. The group is asked whether, overall, this deluge of outside money is having a good effect on the process, even without a visible, obvious scandal? Spies believe it very much is beneficial to the process, that there is more transparency with Super PACs and their donors than there is with the regular campaign24. Burton is the only one to dissent, believing the money is having a malevolent effect, and argues for caps, though absent reform, democrats will have no choice but to have independent money groups of their own25. Law stresses again that outside money is mainly the result of McCain-Feingold, rather than Citizens United26. Spies, Forti, and Baker argue that campaign finance is simply first amendment protected speech, no different from a news piece by Berke27. At this point, Berke asks how the various donors to the Romney Super PACs feel about having tossed their money down a drain28. Spies disputes the assertion that the donors’ millions went down the drain29. Well, Berke, suggests, if you invest heavily in a candidate, and that candidate loses, you’ve thrown money down the drain30. Spies asserts that if the Romney Super PACs hadn’t been there, the outcome could have been much worse31. What’s worse than losing?, asks Berke32. Spies argues that were it not for his efforts and others, the Romney election loss would have been even greater33. Forti points out that thanks to Super PACs, important issues were brought to the forefront34. The session is over. The participants are thanked.
1 Gwen Ifill: Hi everybody, I’m Gwen Ifill with PBS, Rick Berke who you know, with the New York Times. Today, we’re going to talk about money today. I think everybody knows everybody on the panel and, if not, you can refer to your folders for a little bit of…we’ll try to keep calling you by your names so everybody can follow along, especially anyone listening on audio later on, so we can have a free-wheeling, wide-ranging discussion of the six billion dollar campaign. Why it happened, how it happened, how it came to be, and what effect it had. I want to start by relaying a conversation I had with a voter yesterday in Dallas, Texas, who raised his hand and said, “So…after all this money was spent, can you tell me if it made a difference, and who won and who lost?” And I realized, I honestly didn’t have an answer. But that you guys might. So I wanted to start by going down the line and asking your thoughts about that, when you look at the numbers, when you look at the outcomes, and you look at the money you raised, and the records that you broke, what difference did it make? After all the worry about Citizens United, and all the concerns about outside spending and individual spending, did it make a big difference? Nick Ryan, I’ll start with you.
2 Nick Ryan: I think it had a big effect in the republican primary. I think if you look at the work Restore Our Future did, I think they were incredibly effective at assisting governor Romney through the primary and I think the Super PAC that I ran for Senator Santorum, I don’t think he would have been able to have the success or the funds necessary to be competitive. I think as you went through the process and you head into the general election against an incumbent president that’s well-liked and well-defined already, I think it’s more challenging to be effective in that big of a race. The smaller the race, you’re able to effect the outcome much more.
Ifill: I should also add as I go down the line here, and as we continue this conversation, Rick or I are going to encourage you to have conversations with each other…if you hear a description of events that you may disagree with or saw it differently. Bill [Burton]?
Bill Burton: Why would you say that right before my turn?
Ifill: I don’t know…I just came to you.
3 Burton: I think Nick’s right. In the primary, Super PACs made a huge difference. I don’t think Mitt Romney would have been the nominee if it weren’t for Restore Our Future. In the general election, I feel the work that we did defining Mitt Romney’s business experience is something that stayed with voters all the way to election day, and some of the other projects we engaged in, with hispanic voters. I think we were able to help undercut what was already a growing problem for Mitt Romney. But if you look at the broad picture, the hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars, it’s sortof like…I understand that voters’ confusion about whether it made a big difference…if you look at the final outcome, it’s fifty-fifty country, basically. But that’s like saying if you were in a war, where two countries were firing missiles at each other, did the missiles make any difference? And, if one of those countries isn’t firing missiles, you can see what that difference is a lot more, than if both countries are firing the missiles. I think they did make a big difference, and in 2016, I think you’ll see a proliferation of outside groups far beyond what you saw this time round.
Steven Law: Well, I find myself in the uncomfortable position of agreeing with everything Bill Burton said.
Ifill: Don’t make that a habit.
Law: To maybe add a little bit more detail to the picture with respect to American Crossroads and American Crossroads GPS. We looked at the election year, from our perspective, the critical time period was going to be the period between the end of the republican primaries and the conventions, at which time we assumed what ended up happening was that the Obama campaign would front-load their spending, would try to make Mitt Romney an absolutely impossible alternative choice for voters and try to put it away as much as they possibly could, before the conventions. And we ended up front-loading a lot of our spending as well during that particular time-period which we dubbed the inter-regnum between April and August, in fact we were not disappointed: Obama outspent Romney by about a hundred million dollars at that time period, and outside groups between us, Restore Our Future, and Americans For Prosperity ended up making up that deficit very significantly. The result, two things happened from our perspective: one is the ballot test from the end of the primaries up to the close of the conventions was essentially frozen in place, but more significantly for our purposes, when we looked at the election from the very beginning, our view was that the critical metric for us to drive was: whether voters believed president Obama’s economic policies were helping the country, helping the economy, or hurting? And we found, in all of our regression-analyses that if we pushed people into the box of saying on balance, his policies were hurting the economy, they could become a voter who would switch from having voted for Obama in 2008 to voting for Romney in ’12. And during the course of that period those numbers did in fact change from a plurality saying he was making the economy better to, on the eve of the conventions, saying Obama’s policies was making the economy worse.
Rick Berke: Steve-
Law: From our perspective, at critical points, outside spending both in the primary season and at other points, had a material effect on the progress of the race.
4 Berke: Steve, quick follow-up: when you say you agree with Bill Burton, do you agree that had it not been for Restore Our Future, Romney wouldn’t be the nominee?
Law: Well, I didn’t pay as close attention to the primaries, that was the job of the person on my right [Carl Forti, American Crossroads co-chair], but it did seem to me, that most of the impactful advertising, particularly advertising against potential competitors to Romney was done by Restore Our Future. But I-
Berke: So you would agree they led to Romney’s getting the nomination?
5 Law: I think they were critical factor, I don’t know if they were the ultimate factor.
Berke: Carl and Charlie, would you say that’s the case?
Carl Forti: Absolutely. I mean, look, I think Super PACS impacted the debate both in the primary and general election. When you look at the fact that between April 1st and Labor Day, Obama out-spent Romney by over a hundred million dollars, we would not be talking about this race the way we are right now…it wouldn’t have existed like it did in September and October if that was allowed to happen unchecked. From that standpoint, we did have an impact. Steven’s point, in all of our polling, all of our focus groups, we determined that we had to convince people, or bring them over to the decision that Obama’s policies were hurting the country, and by the time we got to the convention for the first time, a plurality of our polling, thought that. That’s what I think our impact was.
Berke: So, were it not for your impact, who would be the nominee?
Forti: I don’t know if we know.
Berke: Who do you think?
Forti: Well, Rick Santorum was the last man standing…had Super PACs not been involved the whole way along, Gingrich might have won it out of the gate.
6 Charlie Spies: I agree with basically everything that’s been said, I think it was certainly a key factor in the primary, it’s trite, but obviously the candidate’s the most important factor. And a Super PAC can’t make up for deficiencies of a campaign. But, I think we were a key ally in that effort. Two things since I did agree with most everything that was said, two things I’d like to know: one, Gwen started by talking about the massive amounts of money being spent, I think one thing we learned in this cycle is, the timing of money is just as important as the amounts of money…
Ifill: Give us a specific example where the timing made a difference.
Spies: Well, I was at the RGA meeting…Republican Governors Association meeting two weeks ago, and one of the governors said to me, “If you’d just spent a few million dollars over the summer doing voter registration and voter I.D. work, and not spent it in the end, in the closing week, on TV ads, you would have won my state.” And I just sortof smiled and nodded, what are you going to say? But: we didn’t have the extra money over the summer, money ended up being backloaded and spent in the closing six weeks, and the closing month, because that’s when the money came in and that’s when people were most enthused. You heard on the previous panel [Obama strategists conference] the Obama strategists talking about frontloading their spending? And that’s a luxury that an incumbent campaign has and it’s not something that at least a Super PAC that was candidate specific like Restore Our Future was, that we had the ability to do. The other thing I hope we do talk about, I know we have got plenty of time, but I hope we talk about is, there are a lot of journalists here who wrote a lot of articles about how awful Super PACs were going to be, and how they were going to distort democracy, and how this was going to lead to Watergate style corruption, and I think one thing that is notable, is over the last couple of years, you really haven’t seen, I mean, the usual self-styled reform groups that make money off of claiming that there’s problems, you know, put out press releases? But you really haven’t seen, in my opinion, a scandal involving Super PACs. If there were scandals, you know campaign finance scandals, it’s probably foreign money to the Obama campaign, and that’s the campaign itself, not the Super PACs.
Ifill: We’ll get back to this. (loud laughter) I promise you. But first Brian.
Brian Baker: Well, I would agree with all the points made, and I would say we were a boutique Super PAC in that we focused on issues, we were not only in the presidential race, but in senatorial races, and I think, obviously, in the primaries Super PACs played a big role there. I think the other thing interesting about Super PACs, to pick up where Charlie left off in terms of the reporting is, a lot of folks focused on the negative. But in fact at least on our side, our Super PAC ran all positive advertising, featuring people who voted for president Obama in 2008, who had decided they didn’t like his performance in office and switched to support governor Romney. And I think some of the more memorable ads from Restore Our Future were the positive ads featuring…like the family of the young girl that governor Romney helped save when he was at Bain Capital. So I feel like the media didn’t focus enough on the fact that a lot of the Super PACs were really actually bringing positive information flow about candidates out there, and I think that’s an important role for Super PACs as well.
Ifill: But did it work? The original question.
Baker: Well…it certainly, if you judge it by whether or not it worked, governor Romney lost, so you could say no, but…on the other hand, given all the things that were said about him in terms of him causing cancer, and all these terrible things that Bill’s Super PAC was saying about the governor, I feel like the Super PACs on our side did a good job of humanizing governor Romney and really pointing out the positive aspects of his record, so probably it brought it up more to parity, and gave the campaign an opportunity to get their message out.
7 Berke: Now you guys said it was largely what you all did that helped deliver the nomination to Romney…did he not hold up his end of the bargain in the general? It’s pretty well known that there’s some distress among your ranks at some of his ad strategies were inefficient, sortof focusing on things that were done in the ’80s, like “Wheel of Fortune”, like bad targeting, like “Wheel of Fortune”, “Jeopardy”, instead of the better targeting, I mean, how much do you blame the ad people on the campaign, and the strategists on the campaign for what happened in the end?
Spies: I’ll take a first crack at that, and say: I would not say that at all, they did not uphold their end of the bargain. I thought they ran a very good campaign, and it was a very close election, and maybe other people, what you’re alluding to…you were pointing at us, I certainly haven’t said that. To the extent that there’s a lot of discussion about, could there have been more positive framing of governor Romney? And more to define him? I don’t know the answer, and I think the campaign has good answers for why resources weren’t focused on that. But if, you know, experts were to conclude that there should have been more positive definitions, I would say it’s very difficult to do it from the outside.
8 Berke: Let me ask Carl and Steven, is there anything different you would have done if you were the Romney campaign in how they handled those closing months and their ad strategy, or did you think it was picture perfect?
Forti: I don’t think we can possibly answer that question, I mean we’re each making decisions in our own bubble…and they were doing what they thought was best.
Berke: Your frustration was no secret. I mean…
Forti: I don’t think either of us expressed real frustration. I mean, the only thing that made it difficult for us to do our job was, someone pointed out on the Obama panel before, that they placed back in July for the whole fall, Romney was placing week to week35. And that’s their choice, nothing wrong with that, other than the fact that we couldn’t…there were no signals there for us Super PACs to know what’s the most important and where to go, we had to make our own decisions.
Law: It also just reflects a larger issue that became a strategic constraint on the campaign that had nothing to do with tactical decision making, but they were at a significant financial disadvantage vis a vis the Obama campaign throughout, not only in the summer, but through the fall. In the end, they were outspent by about $154 million dollars on TV. That’s thirty million dollars in Ohio alone. That’s equivalent of six weeks of unanswered television, which from our perspective probably put constraints on their ability to triage messaging. But from our perspective, it made very clear to us that our role was to continue to keep the pressure and the attention on Obama’s policies and the impact of those policies as a means of at least keeping voters locked in place for as long as possible.
Ifill: Did you feel at any point that you were…hamstrung by a campaign strategy that was not in keeping with what you saw as a useful political strategy?
Law: We knew what we needed to do. In fact, it was interesting, I was listening to Matt Rhoades talk last night about the policy, sort of the way they viewed the campaign, it was the first time I heard him articulate that, because obviously we didn’t talk during the campaign, but it was precisely the same frame of reference we used. So, from the vantage point of continuing to focus on the economy and jobs, it was entirely in keeping with the direction that we felt we needed to have.
Ifill: The reason I ask you that question, not picking on you, because I’m coming back to Mr. Burton, David Axelrod said earlier today that he was not crazy about that “Mitt Romney gave my wife cancer” ad. That was your ad. Is that something where you were out of step with the campaign?
9 Burton: Well, I think if he’s saying that, he wouldn’t have run the ad, I think you can rightfully say, they wouldn’t have run the ad that we put together. I think there’s a bunch of different pieces of this. First, I think you guys are being much kinder to the Romney campaign then maybe I would be if I were in your shoes. Because given the fact that there was massive confusion, no clear direction from Boston, for reporters, for voters, for anybody, where they were taking the message of the campaign, I think it must have been really difficult for you guys to figure out where exactly to go, and I think, Crossroads and Restore focused a lot on jobs and debt, but if you look at what AFP [Americans For Prosperity, a non-profit advocacy group backed by the Koch brothers] was doing with Solyndra, and all these other attacks, and you’ve got the Romney campaign doing welfare reform and the war on religion, at any given moment, if you’re a voter, I think you probably don’t have a very clear sense, so if you’re a Super PAC supporting the campaign, you probably also don’t have a clear sense of what can be most helpful. I think your point on the spending is a much bigger deficit than people might initially realize. To not know where the campaign thinks are the most important targets makes it impossible for a Super PAC to target your own funds…and you had so much money, but not knowing exactly where the campaign was going to put it, puts you at an even bigger disadvantage as a Super PAC, because you’re spending so much more money, especially as you get closer to the election. And not being able to plan that out in advance, is very difficult. The last thing I would say on this? Is that I don’t think enough attention has been given to the fact that Mitt Romney, who is a spectacularly wealthy man…at a point where he was being attacked relentlessly, didn’t put any of his own money into the campaign. And I don’t know at one point he decided he was not going to spend a dime to help his own effort, no matter how bad things got…particularly in May and June, when we were doing the Bain attacks, and the campaign was doing their series of attacks. You know the fact that nobody was out there responding to that, and they could’ve, I think is probably, you know, a mistake that led to the loss36.
Ifill: I don’t want to get away from the cancer ad.
Ifill: Do you regret doing that?
10 Burton: No. I don’t. Because if you look at what happened with that spot, for starters, we didn’t say that Mitt Romney caused someone to get cancer, I think you have to presuppose that voters are idiots to think that they would take that from that ad. I don’t think anybody who watched that thought that. I think what people saw was that there are real-life consequences that happen when somebody comes to town, shuts down a factory, people lose their jobs and promised health care benefits and Joe Soptic’s case? I talked to him about this. He doesn’t blame Mitt Romney for his wife getting cancer. What he blamed him for was the fact that at a point of terror, in any person’s life when a family member gets diagnosed with a terminal illness, he didn’t have health insurance that was promised him. And regardless of any other facts that came out, that was true. And if you look at what happened politically, that entire period, there was probably a week where we were just getting pounded by a lot of the folks in this room, by folks all over Washington, but the ultimate result of that, is that we spent a week talking about Mitt Romney’s business experience, after which there probably weren’t a lot of people who walked away thinking, “Oh, that was a positive thing”, that Mitt Romney had that business experience.
Spies: If I-
Burton: Hold on. And two: none of that accrued to the president. Even though the campaign had to answer questions about it, the president at one point answered a question about it, it wasn’t like voters thought: “oh, the president is getting too nasty and negative here.” It was something that, a message we were carrying that we took the heat on.
Spies: Just two quick points. Washington Post called that “the most dishonest campaign ad of the year.”37 And I would have been mortified if we were the RNC in 2004, and president Bush had to be up on a podium answering for ads…and that’s what happened in this case. Not only the campaign, but you actually had the president himself repudiating the ad, and that does not mean, I suppose, that it wasn’t effective. So, his argument on effectiveness could be correct. At the minimum, it shows the problem with…it shows that there’s a real division between Super PACs because you can’t co-ordinate with the campaign. That it clearly was not part of the Obama campaign strategy when they’re immediately repudiating it.
11 Berke: Let me ask you Bill, just to be clear, as you go on in your political career, would you again recommend, endorse, condone an ad like that?
Burton: You know-
Berke: Did you learn anything? Do you have any regrets? Or do you feel totally comfortable with that decision?
Burton: I feel like I know where you stand on the issue. (laughter) Look, I think anybody can be a genius in retrospect. I think that what we did had a clear impact on the race.
Berke: So, no lessons learned.
Burton: I think you learn a lesson in everything you do.
Berke: But you would do it again.
Burton: You know, I think it’s impossible to take some hypothetical-
Berke: It’s not a hypothetical.
Burton: Well, actually, if you say, “would you?”, sortof by definition it is hypothetical. (laughter) I think every situation is different, every campaign is different. I don’t think democrats will be so lucky as to run against Mitt Romney again. So, you know, I think we’ll just have to-
12 Ifill: Let me just ask everyone else to respond to something else Bill talked about, which is how the Bain attacks went unanswered. For whatever reason in the primaries. Nick?
Nick Ryan: Well, actually in the primaries, I think that both Senator Santorum and Dr. Paul both attacked those attacks, said they were wrong. Said it’s not the direction our party should be going. Then eventually you end up with speaker Gingrich with a situation where he’s conflicted, you know, having to almost walk back the attacks his own Super PAC is making as well. I think the attacks, while they were very similar, the audience that they were done to, to target in the general, it’s a different audience. Attacking on something like Bain in a republican primary didn’t work, and I’m glad it didn’t work.
Ifill: Do you think it caused long-standing harm to your nominee?
Ryan: I wouldn’t say that because it’s already there. And there were some Bain attacks in 2008. And so what’s there is there. The challenge is there possibly could have been a more compelling case portrayed, or story given to the success that governor Romney has had. And the people he has helped. And the many jobs that have been created. And also explain some of those situations that have ended badly. And explain why they did. Because that’s life. It’s not as if everything he’s ever done has turned out a winner for him personally or for the companies he’s invested in. Some of the stories like that about not just opportunity gained, but opportunity lost, would have painted a little different picture of Bain, and Mitt Romney.
Burton: The only thing I disagree with is the notion that didn’t work in the primaries. Because Newt Gingrich, when he did it, his Super PAC did it, it was the South Carolina primary which Newt Gingrich won. And then because of pressure he backed away from these attacks…which was ham-handed in the way he did it, no doubt. But they backed away, Charlie and Carl stepped in, spent, you know, sixteen million dollars in Florida, to beat Gingrich who was no longer doing it, and that’s why the tide turned. It wasn’t because the Bain attacks hurt Gingrich; Gingrich won, when his Super PAC was using them. He lost when they weren’t.
Ifill: Carl, Charlie.
13 Forti: Look, from the Super PAC standpoint, it’s not our job to defend Mitt Romney. If Mitt Romney felt he needed to answer the Bain attacks, they were totally capable of doing it. They spent $75 million dollars over the course of the summer and during the time of the Bain attacks they were still attacking president Obama. We basically get penalised for trying to do positive ads. The FEC makes it very difficult for us to get footage for us to do it at all38. And so we do what we do best. And that was over the course of the summer we also had to keep pressure on Obama. If we, the collective we, ever stepped back from doing that, that would allow him an opening we couldn’t give him. Because we’re still working to define him. That was our mission this summer, and to Bill’s earlier point on the messaging from the Super PAC side being all over the place, we sat down at the table like this and talked every week, on what the message was going to be between all of us. And if you look at the summer, American Crossroads was on in June, or July, AFP or one of the groups went on in early August, Restore Our Future came on in later August, it was a very co-ordinated effort to make sure that from Memorial Day on, someone was on the air attacking Barack Obama.
14 Berke: Could you speak of messaging, could you give us all a sense of the role of the big donors, in decision making, and strategy, and how much they were involved, and how much you would hear from them?
Forti: I think it’s fair to say that we kept our donors informed about what we were doing, but there was no real input from the donors about what the strategy…
Spies: I can think of one example where a donor said we should be talking about the impact of the Obama…raising taxes on small businesses…on a specific type of small business that was just a personal cause of his…over two years, I think that was the only substantive direction asked us about.
Ifill: So you never looked at your caller I.D. and saw Sheldon Adelson, and said, “Oh, God, he’s on the phone again.”
Spies: If he did call, I’d be thrilled. (laughter)
Berke: Steve, would you say the same thing?
Law: Just briefly…actually, one of the real challenges going into the cycle from the very beginning…which ended up being an issue where we had to explain ourselves to donors…as we looked at all of our focus groups and polling data going into the first year, we realized the people that we needed to reach, independent swing voters who largely supported Obama in 2008, still liked him. Didn’t believe he was excessively ideological, didn’t believe he was partisan, didn’t believe he was a bad guy, were proud of the vote they cast in 2008, and needed some convincing to believe otherwise. And the way that was reflected in our messaging, really all the way throughout the year, including into the fall, was largely with fairly gentle, nuanced advertising, not aimed at character, but aimed largely at his record. The kind of traditional, negative campaign, the Obama campaign did, that Bill Burton did to great effect, was not available on our side, to be able to effectively accomplish our mission.
Law: Just to complete the point in response to Gwen’s question: a number of donors and people in the center right community were eager for a more spirited and aggressive effort, and I think in the end they were convinced that the right approach to take was the approach we took. But it was not viscerally satisfying.
Berke: But you guys are experts on how to calibrate this, but we always heard that the people who were giving the money, in many cases, were pushing you much more aggressively, to be tougher…in the advertising. And you’re saying that was not true, they were hands off?
Law: No no no, I’m saying…
Berke: You seem to be saying there was some pressure.
Law: I wouldn’t say pressure, but we felt the need to explain why we were doing what we were doing, because people who are activists, people who are conservatives on our side, there’s a real desire to see something more visceral, but from our vantage point, looking at the data, and I think in the end, everybody understood that this was the right approach to take, to be more nuanced, to be more focused on an economic record, rather than personal attacks which in our research would have significantly backfired. Or been effective.
Ryan: Yeah, I would just say two quick things. In terms of donor input, I didn’t see it a lot on message, but I did see it on tactics. I know the donors I worked with were very interested in seeing Restore Our Future do the olympics ad that you did, given the governor’s successful leadership of the olympics in Salt Lake. So I know that was something that Restore Our Future did, and worked. On our end, another tactic our Super PAC used was something called the “Mitt-zine”, which was a twelve page…I have a copy of it right here (Ifill: It just so happens.) An insert that went into four and a half million newspapers, in five swing states. And when it was pitched to us, I thought, it was a bit goofy. But when I gave it to our principal donor [William Dore, president, Dore Energy Fund], he said, actually that’s a great idea, because the TV airways are so saturated, maybe getting into print, getting into people’s hands, you know, letting them do the Mitt crossword was a good idea. So I think certainly some donors did get involved in decisions like that.
15 Berke: One follow-up, if I may, on the big donors. There are these guys out there, Adelson, the Kochs, you know, Friess, who are very larger than life figures…who…speak their mind…there was a perception out there that these guys might be a little out there. And they were representing the republican party in many ways. Did you worry at all about the perception that these guys had such an out-sized influence over the course of the campaign?
Spies: For the record, all Restore Our Future’s donors were fine people. And not out-sized at all. (mild laughter) Seriously, when you have a Super PAC that’s…and this is true whether it’s presidential or House or Senate, whatever it is, but when it’s dominated by one person…so whether it was the Super PAC supporting Rick Santorum that Foster Friess gave over half…at one point was by far the largest donor for, and the Super PAC supporting speaker Gingrich that Mr. Adelson was exponentially the largest donor for…at that point it can get associated with the donor specifically, and that becomes more of an issue…or: even with Bill Burton’s group, you had at one point just a few Hollywood donors and some unions that were really giving money to the group. We were blessed to have had a long sortof lead-up time of raising money and in terms of the Super PAC world having five hundred donors is a broad base. I realize compared to campaigns that’s not…but we had a large enough group of donors that I don’t think it was associated with any one person.
Berke: What in your view is the danger of having these big names associated with these Super PACs?
Spies: I think it can become a distraction if they are not on-message with what they’re saying. Having said that, most of the political strategists would still rather have the ads. And the earned media distraction, then not have them.
Forti: The bottom line is, however much of a distraction Friess or whoever else wanted to be, the average voter had no idea who they were, or what they were doing with their involvement. Axelrod or somebody made the point that you had earlier that, yes, everyone in this room, and activists on each side may know, but…I’ll use my wife as an example. She hates politics. She doesn’t watch Fox News. She doesn’t know Politico. She doesn’t read the New York Times.
Berke: Wait, that’s impossible. (loud laughter)
Ifill: I want to ask Bill, I want Bill to weigh in on that too. Finish, Carl, but you talked about the fact that a few people may have had outsize influence, but only insiders cared, I want to know if that happened on the democratic side and also, whether that means we’re going to see a lot more of this. Start with that last piece.
Forti: I mean, look, given the impact Super PACs had on this race, and right now the way the law’s written, absolutely you’re going to see more of it. Until the law gets changed, we’re gonna be here.
16 Spies: Can I just make a very brief point on that? Which is, Carl, he said the law. And just remember, this is not the Supreme Court decision, this is not about Citizens United. This is about the law. The law being McCain-Feingold. That was passed, and pushes money away from political parties, and pushes money away from candidates, and forces the money into the outside groups, who have the advantage of being able to take more money. So, this is not a Citizens United phenomenon. Post McCain-Feingold in 2004, you saw this with Progress For America, you saw it with Swift Boat Veterans, and then you saw it with the George Soros groups after that. And, until the McCain-Feingold law is repealed, or at least, modified, and you’re able to get money into political parties and campaigns, you’re going to have outside groups in a disproportionate influence.
Ifill: Were you surprised at all that Citizens United didn’t have a bigger impact, because you knew all along it wasn’t really going to have…especially people on the left feared?
Spies: I think we all thought it would have a symbolic impact. And it certainly got republican donors to feel like it was okay to give again. And so, because there had been a concerted effort…after…the 2004 elections to go after republican donors…and chill them from wanting to participate…and then you had senator McCain, who, you know his candidacy was based around opposition to money in politics. So, there wasn’t a huge interest in getting involved in that. So, I think Citizens United did have a symbolic impact. But it was not a legal impact.
Forti: And Gwen, we all remember the president’s state of the union shortly after Citizens United was handed down, and he, well, with the supreme court sitting there in the well of the house, said we’re gonna have corporations buying elections, and we’re going to have foreign corporations, and all this foreign money…and that largely didn’t happen. Corporate donors were very, very small.
17 Burton: Well, I think the influence question is a little mis-placed, in the sense that…I don’t think…the important issue is not whether a donor has a big influence on the Super PAC; it’s whether they have an influence on the candidate. Because if you want to be Joe Ricketts and spend ten million dollars and talk about Jeremiah Wright, you can certainly do that, and that’s not going to have a certain influence that’s going to be worrisome to an american citizen who’s worried about a rich person having an influence on the process. I think when…you talk about Sheldon Adelson, Sheldon Adelson got a lot of time with Mitt Romney. He went with him to Israel. They…the first meeting that Paul Ryan did after he was picked, was with Sheldon Adelson in Vegas. You know, I think that’s the sort of thing that voters are concerned about. Your guys’ donors must be different than ours, because when I pick up the phone and talk to a donor, everybody had an idea about an ad. (laughter) Maybe it’s because we have such a big part of the creative community in Hollywood and New York, but…we had plenty of good ones. (laughter)
Ifill: Tell us! I want to hear about one crazy one.
Burton: Uh, well, they weren’t necessarily crazy.
Ifill: Oh, of course not. Just in case it gets back to-
Baker: And Gwen, I hope Rick will put it on the front page of the New York Times, if it’s a real crazy one, on Bill’s side.
Berke: Carl’s wife won’t read it.
Burton: Some people would want us to focus on wind energy, or something like that. Everybody had a cause…people wanted to do judges. And we just didn’t have the money to do everything.
Ifill: Judges. That would have got a lot of votes.
Burton: Some people are very motivated by that issue.
18 Berke: Let me jump on something that Bill brought up, and that’s the Ricketts ad campaign. I’ll ask you Brian, there’s the big ad campaign that was laid out in the paper about the effort to link Obama with Reverend Wright, and, can you tell us a little about that, and why that, as far as our sources showed in our reporting, showed that was all set to go, and because of the adverse publicity was pulled.
Baker: I mean, I’ve been very clear and consistent from the very beginning that your reporting was just dead wrong. It was a proposal that was submitted to us, based on an ad that was made for, and rejected by John McCain. I remember having lunch – what – a week before I got that proposal, with Carl [Forti]. And talking about the types of things that would work to convince independent swing voters why president Obama should not be re-elected. And Jeremiah Wright is nowhere on that list. So, I think one of the things you’ll see with Super PACs is they get all kinds of ideas, all kinds of proposals Bill just talked about. This was merely a proposal, it was not acted on, Joe Ricketts wasn’t even at the meeting where it was presented…I was, and I can tell you it was never going to be green-lighted. No ad was ever made, no dollars were ever invested39. I felt like it was fairly over-blown. Harvard must have felt it was overblown, because they didn’t even put it into their timeline for this conference.
Berke: Why wasn’t it going to happen, in your view…it looked like a pretty elaborate proposal? I mean, it didn’t look like some fly-by-night…on a napkin, you know…
Baker: Well, I’m sure Fred Davis will take a compliment at that…elaborate is certainly one word for it. There’s a lot of reasons the Ricketts wouldn’t have done it, I can tell you one in my mind, I don’t think it would have been effective. I remember when he [Fred Davis] presented it to me, I said, where’s the polling data showing this will work? Oh, we didn’t poll this. He put together some scripts based on an ad that he’d made for McCain. So, I think that’s one reason it wouldn’t have been effective. I also think it would have been divisive. And it might have fired up folks for president Obama. So, it might have had an adverse impact. Not only would it not have helped governor Romney, it really might have hurt governor Romney.
Berke: But this is a good example of what you all have to deal with…what I think you have to deal with. Some of the big donors wanting to be more visceral than you think is the wise course.
Spies: Just remember, this was not a donor, this was actually a consultant [Fred Davis] pitching a proposal.
Berke: Right. That’s true.
Ifill: So, none of you ever considered this year…after 2008, there were some concern there were some bodies left in the field, and Jeremiah Wright was one of them, and that Jeremiah Wright was one of them. There were a lot of folks that thought a lot more could be made of that. It was never considered to bring it back up again?
Forti: Considered? Sure.
Forti: None of the research or polling indicated that it would work. Steven pointed out earlier, we learned pretty earlier on, the folks we were going after were undecided voters, 90% of them voted for Obama the last time. They liked him. They just didn’t like what he was doing to the country. So, anything that was attacking his character or personality was already decided in their minds. Obama had them. It was a question of, can we prove, he’s not doing the job, and shouldn’t be given another four years. And that has nothing to do with Jeremiah Wright.
Ifill: We talked about individual donors and I want to talk about corporate donors, and some of them we can track, and we know there are ways in which they could be convinced to give again, as someone described it, but there was also a lot of ways we couldn’t track, a lot of ways that weren’t transparent, and I wondered to the degree, some groups call it “shadow money”, affected, drove decision making, and drove outcomes. (someone asks for clarification) Affected decision-making within the campaign, and the strategy you had in mind. Did it work for it, or didn’t work? Go ahead.
Forti: I’ll just say from our perspective…the donors who ended up supporting Crossroads did so because I think they believed in the team, and the structure, and the approach to the task. And we just didn’t get donors saying you need to do this or that, or talk about this issue or that issue, in part because we were very transparent about the way we went about our decision-making, and why we believed that the strategies and messages we were using would be most effective. We just didn’t encounter much of that…”here’s the issue you oughta do that’ll change things.”
19 Ifill: Was corporate money more or less important this year?
Forti: Well, for us compared to 2010, certainly not.
Ifill: What do you mean?
Forti: Just in terms of an absolute percentage of our receipts, it wasn’t anymore important in 2012 than in 2010.
Ifill: Anybody else?
Spies: When you say corporate money, are you including union money? Or are you saying-
Ifill: (sweetly) We can if you like. (laughter) And I’ll ask Bill that question.
Spies: Okay. Because I think that’s an important part of the discussion is the amount of union money being spent, and I know the unions were some of Bill’s largest donors.
Ifill: How big were they?
Burton: They’re big, they’re very important. We had more than a half-dozen unions who gave us upwards of a million dollars. SEIU was a critical start in getting started and getting going on one of the most important projects that we undertook. It didn’t get as much press coverage, but…arguably had as big an impact on the race as anything else that we did, which was talking to voters in our spanish language ads in Nevada, Colorado, and Florida. And even though that didn’t get a lot of coverage, you know, we watched the numbers for Romney, which were already bad, get much, much worse. And the fact that there was no positive message for Romney until the end in small dribs and drabs made it impossible for him to recover. Union support was no doubt important to our existence40.
Law: To me what was the interesting tectonic shifts on the other side was the way in which organized labor which has always been a major outside presence, I mean, when people talk about outside money, I always say, there’s been a big player that’s been active since FDR. But it appeared to me, at least, that organized labor made a decision of expedience or strategy to move from basically owning the ground game…and delivering the ground game to the democratic party, to being the source of funding for Bill, as well as the other democrat Super PACs and at least as far as I could tell, the Obama campaign itself owning the ground game. Which is a change, it seems to me…in the past, organized labor has delivered boots on the ground, voter turn-out, this time, they ended up being much more the bank account. I’m not saying anything disparaging about it. It seemed to be a real shift in organized labor’s role…it would’ve been good to have someone from organized labor part of this because I think they are one of the most critical outside platforms for political spending on the democratic side. And it seemed to be a shift in the way they used…
Ifill: Was it, Bill?
Burton: Well, I can’t speak to what they were doing on the ground. I do know that…as a percentage, and even by the raw numbers they were able to invest in us and other democratic groups is much smaller than it has been in the past actually. They were an important part that we did…in places…there’s just not as big a political bank account in some of these unions as there once was. So the way they came in was obviously important, and we partnered with them on some pretty good projects. The numbers aren’t as big as they were before.
20 Berke: While you’re talking, could you address the president’s resistance to Super PACs originally, and the impact that had on your fund-raising ability and so forth?
Burton: Sure. Well, it had a significant impact. Because, generally, democrats aren’t for outside groups and that sort of thing being in existence. We had to spend a good year without the blessing of the campaign or the White House, or anyone associated with it, raising money, trying to educate voters about what mean Carl Forti was going to do to the president come 2012 and, so you know, every single meeting we went to, one of the first things people said was: “isn’t the president against these groups?” I was like: “well…..YES, obviously.” But these are the rules of the game, and to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, you go to the election with the rules that you have, not the rules that you wish you had.
Berke: I’ve heard that you were, on many occasions, nervous that the president would come out publicly and attack Super PACs. Talk about that a little bit.
Burton: Well sure, I thought that when you are at a Super PAC, I can’t speak for these guys, you don’t really want for your principal to be principally against what you’re doing. It makes for some tougher sledding than you might otherwise have. And so, we just…the president…the irony here is that in 2008, when I was the press secretary for the campaign, I was the person with all the statements that their colleague, Collegio [Jonathan Collegio, a spokesman for American Crossroads], dug up and put out the second that we announced our group. I was the person saying, “do not set up outside groups”, on behalf of then senator Obama. If you want to help the campaign, do it through the campaign. But since the rules have been changed. And it was a much different environment than it was in 2008, and if the president was going to remain competitive, it was going to need some outside presence. Folks forget in October of last year, the right track number was at fifteen. Unemployment peaked near 11%. Folks generally thought that president Obama was going to go the way of a lot of one term presidents. And it didn’t turn out that way. But we thought that in order to avoid catastrophe, we needed to set up this group41.
Berke: And final point on this line of questioning, and that is: you’re a young-looking guy, you’ve never done this before, you’re not an Ickes kind of figure, you’re not a Karl Rove kind of figure, how much did that hurt? (loud laughter) And what was -
Burton: Lot of ways to go with this. (more laughter)
Berke: And what was Ickes advice to you on how you would do this job?
Burton: Well, Harold Ickes was a huge help to us. He was the president of the board of our Super PAC, and he helped raise some money. You’re right, not having big pillars of the party go out and try to put this thing together was a challenge, but, you know, after a lot of elbow grease, and some smart folks at Priorities [Priorities USA] on figuring out who to target and when to go talk to people, and how to do it, we were able to piece it together. Didn’t hurt that the campaign came in and supported us.
Ifill: Nothing like winning. Does that mean that all those people who were skeptical about it and were slow to open their checkbooks are now calling you on a daily basis, clapping you on the back, and saying “what do we do next time?”
Burton: There are a lot of folks who want to know, “well, what’s next?” There’s no doubt that a lot of people who invest a lot of money were happy with how it turned out and were happy with the efficiency with which we spent their money, and the effectiveness. So, yes, there are people who want to keep this effort going as long as these rules are in place, they want to make sure that on the democratic side there’s an apparatus to deal with what we know is going to be on the republican side. I mean, look at all these guys here, and it’s just me. (laughter)
21 Berke: Steven and Carl can you explain Karl Rove’s role?
Law: First, he’s a tremendously important part of its genesis and its success, he and Ed Gillespie42 came up with the idea in the summer of 2009, and I started talking to them in October, and we really got it rolling in January of 2010. Karl recognized, Karl and Ed recognized, that it was important to not simply have an organization exist for a particular cycle for a political use but to actually have…start to build enduring institutional strength on the right, the way we saw the unions providing that for the democrats, and at the time, at least, moveon.org, which ended up not continuing. First of all, that vision of something that was more than just a one time, one trick pony, to really endure and to build…and there were certain other parts of it that Karl really gets credit for. The first is encouraging us to reach out to other center-right groups, and to start to try to collaborate, where we were legally permitted to do so, share information, and encourage people to pull the oars in the same direction, to the extent that we could, and that was very much an idea that not only did he come up with, but initiated the first meeting at his house, at Weaver Terrace, which is why it got to be known as the Weaver Terrace group, even though we’d long after moved on from there. On the fund-raising side, both he and Ed, and later, Haley Barbour were all tremendously instrumental harvesting their rolodexes and relationships, and lastly, Karl’s a guy who’s got tremendously good ideas, and again, not so much on the tactical side, but much more in broad strategic moments was tremendously useful and valuable source of ideas along the way.
Berke: Did you share his sense in the closing days that Romney would win?
Law: I did not, I did not. He and I joked that I’m from the pessimistic strain of norwegians, and he’s from the more optimistic ones. I think he’s got a little swedish blood in him, which is probably a slander from his perspective, but, no…I didn’t, and the reason I didn’t was that, our polling, unfortunately, was fairly consistently accurate (loud laughter). And what it showed was, on the plus side, we were competitive, in a great number of these battleground states, and some of the fringe states, which grabbed some attention near the end. But we just could never get over the lip, in Virginia, Florida, even in North Carolina, until the very end, and to me it just…as I looked at the polling, and as I looked at the direction of the polling, it just seemed to me, it was going to be hard in the end…the momentum and the energy was starting to go out, or at least flatten out on our side, making it very hard to come back from that.
Berke: And how would you and Carl sortof explain his performance on Fox that Tuesday night, and is he now discredited in the republican party …is it going to be harder for him to raise money in the future?
Law: Absolutely not. No.
Berke: I mean, he’s been mocked, worldwide.
Law: Well, we all get our turn in the barrel. Myself as well at different times. Not at all. We’ve actually spent a lot of time talking to our supporters, and he has himself…first of all, I think there’s a tremendous amount of regard for the fact that at least his role in this was entirely on a volunteer basis, and gave a gigantic amount of his time to a cause that he believed in.
Berke: But I guess, Carl how would you explain that performance on that election night?
Forti: I defer to what Steven said.
22 Berke: Does that give you any cause for…what is he doing…
Ifill: Let me re-phrase it: you spent a year relying heavily on, as you said, strategic vision of Karl Rove. And at the end, as you admit, he was…wrong. And you were probably right…at what point, during the campaign could he have also been wrong in his strategic guidance?
Law: I think you characterized something that I didn’t say. I think the strength of Crossroads to our donors and to all of us is that it isn’t any one person. Karl is a tremendously important factor, really, in some ways, the indispensable man, but he would be the first to say that it doesn’t just rest on his shoulders…Carl Forti is probably the most experienced independent expenditure operative on the republican side, Ed Gillespie was involved, Haley Barbour is certainly…a somewhat experienced player. And it was the team effort that guided our decisions, including a lot of pretty energetic discussions, arguments, disagreements about the way forward, so I think it was a…but, in addition to that…folks like all of us, really are…I think there’s a tremendous amount of value to that group discussion and that’s what ended up yielding results in the strategy we had, and he was a significant part of it, but not the only part.
Burton: He also helped us raise money. Just in fairness to Karl. Bi-partisan, in his support of both sides. But, you know. (laughter) I emailed probably every-
Forti: But you were only raising ten dollars a pop-off, it really hurt his feelings. I want you to know that.
Burton: I probably emailed out every one of his columns to our donors, our high-dollar list to point out what they were saying on the republican side, and how confident Rove was, and when he would go on TV, bursting with confidence, about Romney winning, that little clip went around every single time. Karl Rove is an enduring figure. For both sides. (laughter)
Ifill: It doesn’t sound like you spent a lot of time losing sleep over that, though.
Forti: Not at all.
Ifill: But, did you wonder, and I want to get back to the other, earlier question, did you worry at any point, as you relied on his expertise, his overall vision, that you might be off on a wrong path? That you might be over/underestimating the nominee’s strength, based on the guidance you were getting?
Forti: Most of the strategic decisions we were making were based on research we were doing. I mean, Karl Rove didn’t form an opinion and then we went and implemented it. It was the research, and what we learned that dictated the strategy down from the beginning.
Ifill: So, you like Steve agree you weren’t winning at the end.
Forti: I was allowing myself to become cautiously optimistic. Looking back at our numbers, in hindsight too, the numbers we had, we got, were pretty close to what actually happened.
Law: Look, there were a lot of people who formed that view. I mean, Michael Barone, who is widely respected as one of the deans of politics by all sides, was also wrong. There were a lot of people…and one of the things that was a key factor for him and for others, and even for us when we allowed ourselves to be cautiously optimistic, was the fact that Romney started to pick up significant numbers of independents, in the battleground states, he started to build a lead with independents, and started to narrow the gender gap. And from our analysis of it, all else being equal, that gave us a sense that it might potentially be there for us to win. So, there were a lot of people with a lot of different views, about what might end up happening, and in part, my view is slightly colored by distemperment, but there were a lot of people who thought that we were going to end up winning. There were a lot of people who were shocked on election day.
23 Berke: Let me ask you Charlie, if you could talk a little bit about the awkward legal dance, political dance, of your working to raise money, and help Romney, but not being part of the campaign, and not crossing the line, legally or politically, and one example is, the scene where Romney had that mega-fundraiser event in Utah, and you were in the lobby trying to get donors there, but it was his event43…how do you navigate that, can you talk a little about that?
Ifill: And were you actually grabbing the donors by their necks?
Spies: It worked. (someone: “He was tripping them, actually”) Grab the wallet as they fall. That’s probably a great example, and it’s an example of the tension between what legally you can do, and what the perception can be in the press…and so, legally, there would be no problem with my going to Romney fundraising events…you’re allowed to go to any sort of event, and as long as you’re not getting strategic…secret strategy information, if he’s doing a donor event with hundred people, five hundred people, a thousand people, nothing he says in that is presumed to be, as you know [to Berke], because they’re all your sources, and anything he says probably ends up in the New York Times, that none of that is presumed to be strategic information that would constitute co-ordination. So, legally, you would be okay doing that, practically, for example, in my personal situation, for two years I didn’t go to Romney events. It was just…wanted to be able to when someone signed an FEC [Federal Elections Commission] complaint, to be able to do a signed affidavit saying I didn’t go to Romney for president. Now, you gave an example of, say, there was a Romney donor retreat, I think, some place in the hotel they were holding a retreat, and there were lots of donors around, and I was sitting in the lobby with one of our fundraisers, and saying hi to folks and setting up meetings with anyone who was interested and that just seemed like fund-raising 101, you go where the money is, and it made perfect sense to be in the lobby.
Ifill: But I’m curious…you talk about the things that would leak out anyhow because he was saying these things in a public event…these were…a lot of these were not public events. And that’s why the impact of the leaked 47% tape was so out-size: because we heard governor Romney that we never heard him saying. So, I’m curious after…you’ve all admitted that was not helpful, the democrats had said it was very helpful. I’m curious whether that effected or depressed in any way fundraising from people who would normally write big bucks to go to events like that, who now were a little put off by it?
Spies: Not for us.
Ifill: No one said, “ugh! You guys can’t control these things, I don’t want to know about it, I don’t want to go”?
Spies: I think that was a campaign event. It certainly wasn’t a Restore Our Future event.
Ifill: I understand, people don’t make a distinction in their mind…when they’re being asked to write checks. You get any blowback from that?
Burton: I think about when it came out though, it was so far towards the end of the campaign, an event like that happened – which was clearly a bad event for Mitt Romney – panic probably drove your fund-raising up, if anything.
Baker: Yeah, and not only that…after that was the first debate. Which, we’re all confirming, really drove up fund-raising for all of us. So, that tape didn’t have any impact in terms of fund-raising.
Berke: Let me ask, I’m looking for some consensus among the six of you…any of you…I have a hunch but I don’t know the answer…did any of you ever worry about the FEC at all during the last two years?
Spies: Sure, I’m a lawyer, and it’s my job to do so.
Spies: Of course. There’s always…right now, on the commission, there’s a three vote bloc who are committed to enforcing the law as written. And that’s not what you want them to do. And that’s not what the reformers want them to do. They get pressured to be expansive in their views. But, I feel comfortable that the commission as it is right now is committed to law.
Berke: So you’re worried just a little bit.
Baker: But worried about what? When you set up your groups to follow the rules, there’s nothing really to worry about. They can misinterpret things, we’ve seen how some on the democratic panel before this…Bill, your fund-raising suffered until they started trying to help you. They’re allowed to help do that. They appeared at events.
Berke: There’s a lot of money going around. They’re driving tens of, hundreds of millions of dollars, and their role [the FEC], supposedly, is as the watchdog.
Baker: I don’t wanna wind up in orange jumpsuits. We’re not going to do anything wrong.
Spies: And just to flesh that out a little bit more in terms of…and maybe I was taking your question a little bit differently…the core function of the FEC is to enforce the clearly written laws. And the commission agrees on about ninety-five maybe ninety-six percent of cases. So, it is unified enforcing the law, the laws that are clear. Now, you can…we get requests from the FEC for a description of an expenditure and that sortof thing, and those are the sorts of things where it’s clearly written and they’re good at enforcing, and…if you’re taking in enough money and have enough donors, you’re gonna get questions from them.
24 Ifill: You know, I also want to talk about this whole…search for some sort of agreement in this overview question of…Charlie, I think you were the one at the beginning of this conversation who talked about how everyone though Citizens United and big money would corrupt the system. And that in the end it didn’t. There was no scandal, anyways, was the way you put it. I wonder whether now if we look back on this year which turned the corner on the effect independent expenditures had on this election, I think we can agree; to what degree do we define corruption down? Not corruption so much, not scandal, but to what degree have we entered a brave new world, where we have a different understanding of whether big money is good or bad? Is it okay? I still get questions everywhere I go, like the question I got in Dallas, about money. People are still nervous about the impact of big money, and they do not necessarily pay that much attention to who did it, who raised it, just that there’s a lot of money in the system, and it can’t be good. Do you, in the end, feel that we’re on a good path, with this extra money?
Forti: I think it is a good path, and in some ways, Super PACs are more of a model of transparency than campaigns are. When we’re filing monthly reports, when we’re expending money, filing forty-eight hour reports, and we’re constantly telling the public, the FEC, where we’re spending money, how we’re spending the money, who the vendor is, what the amount is, what the state is that it’s being spent in, and every donor is also reported, and so44…and there’s no big lag where you have to wait, and so as the contests are happening, and as you are spending the money, you’re disclosing it. And I’m a person who thinks you shouldn’t limit speech, and if an individual wants to volunteer a thousand hours on the campaign, or for a cause, or a person wants to write a million dollar cheque45, they can express themselves in whatever way they want, and with the case of Super PACs, it’s all disclosed. Every bit of the income, every expenditure, and I think that’s helpful.
Ifill: Bill, healthy?
25 Burton: No, ultimately I don’t think it’s a good system, and could use some reform, because the spending isn’t just from Super PACs, it’s also from groups that don’t disclose everything…that’s only one piece of it, though. The question of whether or not there’s a problem coming out of the election, you wouldn’t get necessarily by election day…I’m sure you can come up with examples on the democratic side, but on the republican side…so, say Mitt Romney had been elected. Whatever happened with the investigation at the justice department has into Sheldon Adelson’s dealings, would have got extra scrutiny, and no matter which way it went, people would have questioned whether the extraordinary amount of money that he had given would have played a role in the outcome of what happened there. Now, that’s obviously not to say there would have been corruption, and I wouldn’t imply that at all, because the people who make those sorts of decisions are professionals in the justice department…but those are the kinds of questions that get raised just because there’s all this money in the system. And while ultimately there probably oughta be “caps”, there definitely oughta be caps on how much money people should give, transparency is probably the best way to go about running these organizations, so people can have a clear sense, and if questions arise, people can ask them.
Ifill: But that’s in an ideal world.
Burton: But in the world we live in now, that’s not the case. And there are no caps. And there are organizations, like the one I run with my partner, Sean Sweeney, that don’t disclose every single dollar that comes in, and every dollar that goes out the door. It’s a system that needs reform, and I hope that this next session, some of those republican members who saw some outside money spent against them start to come to the conclusion, “maybe this is not a perfect system for how we do this thing.”
Berke: Let’s quickly go down the line.
26 Law: I’ll just say two quick things, first of all, one of the most important points was made earlier by Charlie which is that the law we’re operating under is not really Citizens United, it’s McCain-Feingold, I often like to say we’re children of Fred Wertheimer. This was entirely predicted at the time of its passage, that it would push money out of the parties and into other channels, and the major innovation post-Citizens United is that people on the right started to do what was done very effectively on the left. Prior to Citizens United, organized labor spent four hundred million dollars on the 2008 elections, after which point, Gerald McEntee [president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees] said publicly: “we want payback for our investment.” In this election cycle, firefighters publicly said they were unsure that they were going to support president Obama again unless they got some things they wanted. And then at some point later, they admittedly got some things they wanted, (laughing) because they said they were going to support him46. Those are the things that strike me as a little more troubling. Nevertheless, I think it’s…the system we operate under is the system that congress passed. And I think it shows the folly of trying to push resources out of the parties, where I think they can be an effective and very leveling voice supporting both challengers and their own candidates.
27 Forti: I guess I would say that we are the practitioners. And to Steven’s point, if the lawmakers decide there’s a problem and want to try to change the law, the way they do with McCain-Feingold, they can do that. But the supreme court was pretty clear too that people have a first amendment right to spend their money any way in politics that they want to. And if…I don’t know if Sheldon Adelson spending twenty million is any different from somebody making fifty thousand dollars a year writing a thousand dollar cheque to a candidate, from a quality of dollars standpoint. The system is the system.
Spies: And I think a lot of people would rather have, you, Rick write a column on the front page of the New York Times about whatever the issue is, then have money in a Super PAC. It has a lot more value. You have a voice in the marketplace too, and I think that’s part of why there’s screaming about Super PACs, is it’s a balancing influence that puts some money into the more conservative voices, or voices that may not be heard in the mainstream media. So, one other thing, it can also be anti-establishment. I think Super PACs are around, I think they’re gonna be a growing phenomena in the next two election cycles, I think you’ll see them a lot more in primary elections where a smaller amount of money can have a large impact. And I also think you’ll see them focus on single issues…Brian’s group Ending Spending is very good at pushing a very narrow issue and I think you’ll see more of that in the coming years about groups focused on certain ideological issues.
Burton: I have noticed that Rupert Murdoch has had a tough time getting his message out there. (mild laughter)
Baker: I would say there’s two points. I mean first a lot of people forget that Citizens United helps in terms of corporations, it helps in terms of setting up Super PACs. But before Citizens United, people, wealthy or not, had the option to exercise their first amendment rights in campaigns. So even without Citizens United, even without Super PACs, I have no doubt that, if president Obama did his presidency in the way he has so far, with his fiscal policy, irresponsible fiscal policy, in Mr. Ricketts’ eyes, he would still have spent the ten million dollars or more, that he spent, and the disclaimer saying “paid for by the Super PAC”, would have said “paid for by Joe Ricketts”, and I believe there was a gentleman who did that, the hungarian businessman [George Soros, obviously]. So, the law-
Ifill: With incredible effect.
Baker: Right. So the law that we really should be talking about here is the first amendment, as Carl says. I think that’s the first point. And the second point is I always come back to George Will, who, I think, every year, when he writes his campaign finance column, he notes that we spend more money annually advertising for chewing gum than we do at picking our national leaders. So, I’m not so certain why Bill, you’re afraid to allow folks to exercise their first amendment rights. Certainly, our national leadership is at least as important as the gum we chew.
28 Berke: Before we go, what are you telling all these people that spent millions and millions and millions of dollars, and the money all went down the drain, their candidate did not win in November, what are you telling them, how are you placating them?
29 Spies: Well, I’ll talk at least from the Restore Our Future perspective. First of all, I don’t agree with your characterization that the money went down the drain-
30 Berke: Well, if their outcome is to elect their candidate for president, and they lose, that to me is money down the drain. (laughing)
31 Spies: Well, first of all, it’s to be in a position, and that means winning a primary, that you can compete in and win. And second of all, it means being able to fight back against attacks, keep the candidate…help their efforts to stay in the game over the summer, when traditionally the under-funded candidate gets knocked out. And be in a position to win in the closing weeks, which I think governor Romney certainly was47, and so, to come up with one metric of, obviously, that’s the key, but it could’ve been a lot worse, without, I believe the efforts of all the groups at the table, other than Bill, who wasn’t helpful…(laughter)
32 Berke: When you say a lot worse, how so? How could it be worse than losing?
33 Spies: Could’ve lost a lot worse. Might have had a mandate. You never know. I don’t think it’s fair to say money went down the drain, but to answer your question, also, we made a specific effort to communicate with our donors, no less frequently than every two weeks, probably more frequently than that. We did calls with them, we’d walk through polling numbers, we’d walk through what our strategy was. And tell them exactly where we saw the race going in the coming weeks, what we were doing, and how the money was being used, and also talk about the expenses, and how efficient we were in the use of the resources, and because they felt vested in our strategy and what we were doing…we did a call after the election with the donors, and we did not have one. donor. complaint. about our efforts on the call. I’m not aware of a single donor complaining about our efforts.
Forti: And if I could just add, Charlie-
Ifill: Final word.
34 Forti: Just real quickly, the other important thing is, from the donors that we’ve talked to is…and certainly on our end…is, if our efforts have pushed issues to the forefront, like the fiscal cliff, and so if we, through our efforts, governor Romney unfortunately was not elected, forces president Obama to be a more responsible president for the four years, then hopefully some good will have come out of our efforts.
Ifill: Thank you all so much.
Berke: Thank you. (applause)
(The issue of campaign finance is a complex and entangling issue that remains unreported and too murky; below is a starting list of footnotes for the transcript, which will be broadened in the next few days, to add further clarifying details and refutations of the transcribed discussion)
35 The baffling ad-buying strategy of the Romney campaign is discussed in “Mitt Romney’s unusual in-house ad strategy” by Alexander Burns. It is also discussed in “Romney spent more on TV ads but got much less” by Tom Hamburger, where the ad spending is referred to as “campaign malpractice”.
37 A discussion of the Joe Soptic ad at the Post, by Glenn Kessler, can be found here. An ad that was condemned equally, if not more, was the infamous Romney Jeep to China ad. It was labeled “F-You Dishonesty” by Michael Tomasky, ,“astonishingly dishonest” by the Washington Post, Chrysler felt the need to publicly refute it, it was called “the biggest load of bull in the world” by Bill Clinton, and Joe Biden described it as “cyncial”, “desperate”, and “an outrageous lie”. On December 12, 2012, it was named “the lie of the year” by Politifact. The “jeep to china” ad was not made at a pro-Romney super PAC, but developed in-house at the Romney campaign.
38 Forti is not being disingenuous on this point; for a production company to do a positive ad for a campaign, it needs original, high quality footage of the candidate shot by the campaign itself. To acquire such footage, it needs to contact the campaign and request it – such contact would constitute co-ordination between the campaign and the super PAC. This point is made by Forti in “Enter the Era of Super PACs” by Josh Boak.
39 The Times piece in question is “Magnate Steps Into 2012 Fray on Wild Pitch” by Jim Rutenberg and Jeff Zeleny. It lists no corrections that had to be made subsequent to its publication, and I do not think any of Mr. Baker’s statements refute the content of the article. It does not suggest an ad was made, only that there existed a proposal, and that Ricketts was very enthusiastic about an earlier, never used ad on Wright. Ricketts was a major contributor to the End Spending Super PAC where the proposal circulated, with Rickett’s enthusiastic reaction highlighted. The article makes no claims that Ricketts was personally at any meeting, or that an ad was produced. Details on the proposal and the proposal’s controversial originator, Fred Davis, can be found in “Republican ad maker Fred Davis offers regrets” by Mark Z. Barabak.
40 A simple contrast can be made between money given by unions and high-profile donors. Among the top union donors to Priorities USA are the American Federation of Teachers (COPE) giving $1.5 million, United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Pipe Fitting Industry – $1.5 million, National Air Traffic Controllers Association PAC – $1.25 million, International Union Of Painters And Allied Trades Political Action Together Political Commitee – $1 million, UAW Education Fund – $1 million, SEIU COPE – $1 million. Among the top individual donors to various republican Super PACs, we have the Adelsons at over $60 million dollars, Harold Simmons giving $24 million, and Bob Perry with over $20 million. Contribution information was obtained from the ProPublica PAC tracker. The Politico story, “Barack Obama, Mitt Romney both topped $1 billion in 2012″ by Kenneth P. Vogel, Dave Levinthal and Tarini Parti, puts Adelson’s total contributions at $90 million.
41 A good description of the genesis of Priorities USA, along with a brief profile of Bill Burton can be found in Robert Draper’s “Can the Democrats Catch Up in the Super-PAC Game?”.
42 Gillespie would later join the Romney campaign as a senior adviser: “Ed Gillespie Joins Mitt Romney Campaign As Senior Adviser “ by Elise Foley.
43 This event, and the controversy over the presence of Spies is described in “Cash Rules at Romney Retreat While Condoleezza Rice Steals the Show” by Shushannah Walshe and Arlene Saenz;along with Spies, Karl Rove was also a guest at this same event, which is the focus of “Karl Rove Gave Secret Speech Outside Romney Donor Retreat” by Peter H. Stone.
44 Both Edward Conrad, along with William Laverack Jr. donated to the Super PAC Restore Our Future without revealing their identities by contributing through limited liability companies, the men revealing their identities only after filings with the FEC. Other donors associated with the LLCs remain unknown. Information on this can be found at “Mystery Romney Backer Reveals Himself” by Alexander Bolton and ” A Likely Name For a Mystery Donor” by Michael Luo. The other issue is that many Super PACs, including American Crossroads and Priorities USA Action have a non-profit advocacy twin, respectively Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies (Crossroads GPS) and Priorities USA: this is described in “Enter the Era of Super PACs” by Josh Boak.
45 If we try to calculate the volunteer equivalent of what the Adelsons gave in this campaign, by assuming each hour has the dollar value of the wages earned by that worker, then someone working minimum wage would have to work, without sleep, eating, or rest, for over nine hundred and forty years to equal the sixty million dollars these donors contributed in this campaign.
Mr. McEntee said labor must guard against overreaching and should avoid warring with other Democratic-leaning groups – “to turn the other cheek on this and be more interested in the bigger picture,” he said – but he also said unions paid their dues by supporting Democrats and President-elect Barack Obama in this year’s election.
He said they expect that effort to be rewarded with action.
“The payback would be Employee Free Choice Act – that would be a vehicle to strengthen and build the American labor movement and the middle class,” he said. “It’s the condition of the country, it’s health care, it’s the Employee Free Choice Act, it’s some kind of effort made in protection of their pensions. These are big and major items.”
I am unable to find evidence of the quid pro quo alleged regarding the firefighters union. The wikipedia page for the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) mentions that they have backed many republican candidates in the past, and makes no mention of any explicit concession Obama made for their endorsement; the IAFF PAC contributed close to $900 000 for the re-election of Barack Obama.
47 This point on the importance Restore Our Future played in the general and the primary is re-inforced in an excellent, and rare, profile of Spies, “Mitt Romney Would Be Toast Without This Man” by Andy Kroll.