Controlling the message

Perhaps the most fundamental, if rarely acknowledged, reason that politicians dislike independent spending is that they are not in control of the messaging put forward by the advocacy groups.

Candidates, by their very nature, obsess over the messages coming out of their campaign. Massive sums are spent on polls that tell the candidate what issues to focus on in order to most benefit their candidacy or hurt their opponent’s. Similarly, the polls tell the candidates which issues to downplay and which ones simply do not move the electorate.

Independent expenditures take some of this control away from the candidates and can force them to address issues they’d rather avoid. Sometimes, as in MoveOn.org’s "General BetrayUs" ads, the advocacy can even backfire, harming its intended beneficiary.

Perhaps, this is the reason why at least one presidential campaign is discouraging independent expenditures by advocacy groups, while still encouraging coordinated efforts from the same organization.

The Washington Times reported today that Sen. Barack Obama "whose campaign has sharply criticized the role of outside political groups in the presidential race, has benefited more than any other candidate from millions of dollars in independent political expenditures."

More interesting, the Washington Times found that while still discouraging independent expenditures, the Obama campaign has apparently emraced coordinated advocacy.

Not surprisingly, the Clinton campaign was quick to criticize Obama for allegedly having a double standard when it comes to outside advocacy groups:

"The reality is, our political system allows for many different types of groups to play a role in the process, including third-party entities," said Clinton spokesman Phil Singer. "It only becomes a problem when one candidate criticizes another candidate, but then benefits from the very same types of expenditures, as is the case with Senator Obama, or if there is illegal coordination."

For the record, the Obama campaign is fine with coordinated efforts using hard dollars. The problem for them appears to only begin when groups engage in independent activity.

The campaign sent a letter in February to the SEIU, which has engaged in independent advocacy, asking that it "devote its ‘time and energies in full partnership with the official [Obama] campaign, in place of any current or planned independent activities.’"

So why be for the coordinated spending of one group, but opposed to independent spending by the same organization?

Colby College professor Anthony Corrado may have found the answer.

"I think the candidates are more wary of this type of activity than is generally thought. It can produce a mixed message. Given the fact the candidates have so much money to spend, the candidates would probably rather be in control of their own message," he said.