A dark-money cloud obscures issues that matter in Michigan

As anybody knows who’s recently tried to watch the evening news, catch the Wolverines or Spartans on a Saturday afternoon, or have dinner uninterrupted by phone solicitations or robocalls…

That’s not easy, because we’ve reached political high season – and the weather is getting steadily worse.

The nonpartisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network reports that, through Labor Day, the campaigns for governor and U.S. Senate had spent a total of nearly $30 million on advertising, mostly TV.

In both cases, much of the spending is “dark money,” money for so-called issue-based advertising, in which the identity of those paying for the ads can legally be unreported and therefore effectively secret. An effort to bring sunshine to the process failed last year when the legislature passed a bill allowing dark money to remain secret and preventing officials from requiring disclosure.

The biggest fraction of these funds is “independent,” that is, it comes from sources not directly connected with either party or any of the Michigan-based political campaigns. In other words, Mr. Out-of-State Billionaire/Ideologue can spends a ton telling Michigan voters who to support and why, regardless of what’s going on in their minds.

Spend that money, that is, without the voters knowing who is giving it or what their motivation may be. As for those actually running – who cares what the candidates think? It’s the ideology lurking behind the big money that really counts.

When I talked with both Michigan Republican and Democratic party chairs about this a few months ago, both railed against out-of-state “poligarchs” whose heavy spending is taking over the content and voice of what used to be locally managed campaigns.

“They have their own strong viewpoints,” one said, “that might or might not fit with what Michigan voters are thinking. But they’ve got the money, and that’s what makes the ads.”

All that connects in my mind with an interesting piece that appeared in the Sept. 5 issue of the Gongwer News Service report. It began, “There is a disconnect between the issues Michigan Republican candidates are emphasizing and the issues that matter to independent voters,” a quote from Greg McNeilly, one of the state’s top Republican consultants and operatives.

McNeilly, according to Gongwer, has looked over three different polls of Michigan voters, all conducted by “right-of-center” organizations. On his website, he listed issues that Republican candidates in Michigan are emphasizing, and said, “based upon the polling data, these are issues NO INDEPENDENT voter cares about: Immigration; Common Core education reform; Keystone Pipeline; repealing ‘Obamacare’; business tax cuts; recoveries, economies or economics.”

In contrast, according to McNeilly, independents do care about: “Jobs; restoring the American dream; equal opportunity in education; affordable, workable health care.”

The Gongwer report continued: “What jumps out about the first list Mr. McNeilly posted is that it virtually mirrors the issues Republican candidates in Michigan are emphasizing. It’s not so much that the themes are bad ones. The problem, he said, is there is “minimal intensity from voters on those issues.”

This, right when this year’s is fast becoming one of the most intense gubernatorial races in state history. One recent poll, by USA Today/Suffolk University and published in the Detroit Free Press, found Democrat Mark Schauer with a slim 2 percent lead over incumbent Gov. Rick Snyder. Important in the context of McNeilly’s comments are cross tabs from the poll showing that Snyder has a small but clear (48-42) lead with independent voters.

Michigan has slightly more voters who lean Democratic than Republican. But those who self-identify as independent has been growing, and these days there are slightly more of them than those who swear allegiance to either of the major political parties.

Interestingly, Snyder’s lead among Independents may contrast with the common wisdom among political experts that it’s the highly partisan, highly motivated voters – the “base” – which really makes the difference in elections. Maybe big-time Republican donors from out of state are taking aim at GOP base voters, even if the issues they push don’t seem to turn on the Independents.

So the next time you see “independent” TV ads advocating for Republican candidates, you might want to check to see if they fit McNeilly’s analysis. And you might ponder which bloc carries more weight: The GOP base or those leaning independent.

Which gets us to the larger issue behind any of these supposed lists. According to Rich Robinson, director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, some $85 million of spending in TV ads went unreported between 2000 and 2012 because the ads were purchased by issue advocacy groups. (Millions more in such ads have and will undoubtedly air since.)

Under Michigan law, because such ads don’t explicitly tell voters to “vote for” or “vote against” candidate X, the donors don’t have to be identified. The gap between “issue education” ads and outright political advertising is, of course, a distinction without a difference.

But the legal loophole opened by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 2010 Citizens United decision has opened the floodgates for a gusher of dark money to surge into Michigan.

This is bad mainly because it risks making political discourse in our state the controlled fief of secret, often out-of-state moneybags.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Tue, 09/16/2014 - 8:22am
This persistent obsession for "disclosure" by the media scratches where it doesn’t itch. Why should voters care who advertises provided that what is said is true? Isn’t anonymous criticism the sleazy politicians’ itch? These fellows are irritated because they can’t discover who opposes them and and so can't mete out appropriate punishment. Anonymity in politics has a long and honorable history in the United States. The Founding Fathers published the Federalist Papers, Antifederalist, Common Sense and other founding documents under protective pseudonyms. Our federal Constitution was written in secret. What if Richard Nixon had the knowledge of Deep Throat's identity, would DT have dared tell the truth? Suppose that DT had been IBM which knew what was happening because they had control of information flows. Would Nixon have permitted IBM, then among the most powerful of American corporations, to threaten his presidency? IBM knew that Tricky Dick had real power of retribution and that it would have had to feed its information into the system anonymously. To hold otherwise is ridiculous. It may be that the anonymous donor has a grievance that he wants addressed by electing a better candidate but fears retribution from a powerful and unscrupulous incumbent who will probably be reelected anyway. The donor may also want to hide his political activity from friends, customers or employers. Remember what happened to Mormons and Catholics when a court order forced the publication of the donor list for supporters of Gay Marriage in California? Anonymity allows true political transparency. The lazy media, aspiring voyeurs and provocateurs all, are miffed when political money outs big stories like the Swift Boaters exposing John Kerry as a self serving poseur. Hopefully establishment politicians citing "voter rights" won't be able to hide their lies behind a constitutional McCain-Feingold. The bill of rights constrains government. not what we, rich or poor, say.
Tue, 09/16/2014 - 11:38am
Full disclosure is critical. We need to know who is trying to sway the voters one way or the other. Unfortunately, much of our electorate is fairly uninformed and easily swayed by such ads, which are mostly lies. The massive amounts of money being used to buy elections to satisfy ideological or profit interests is sickening. I would much rather see the candidates debate than listen to issue ads.
Tue, 09/16/2014 - 6:07pm
dlb, How can you be so sure that discloser is the issue? Isn't it the message and how the public recieves the message is what matters? In reality don't most people only hear what they are listening for? Thnk of your own listening, how many ads do you actually hear, how many do you tune out? If you are tuning them out after the first sentence or picture then the ad has no value. Which ads do you like best and do you care who paid for them? Which ads do you detest the most and do you care who paid for them? Please answer to youself before reading further. If you only care about one and not the other then this is a false issue, if care more about who paid for those you dislike more then the ones you like then it is a false issue. Because if the ad makes the difference then it is the message and not whose paying.
Tue, 09/16/2014 - 7:13pm
The comment, "Anonymity allows true political transparency," is reminiscent of George Orwell at his best. Nice one, hombre! Only, I sense you're being earnest. Even Justices Roberts, Alito and Scalia agreed that accountability for political advertising allows voters to view campaign propaganda in the "proper way." [See Part IV, Citizens United v. FEC (2010)]. As J Scalia said in Doe v.Reed (2010),"Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed." Your false equivalences and shabby defense of cowering billionaires is entirely unconvincing.
Tue, 09/16/2014 - 9:57am
Dark money does not vote. Whoever is elected is up to the people. Most people are pretty set in their ways as to who they will vote for, long before the advertising season starts. It should be very easy for people to determine that most of the advertising is stretched truth. The only sad thing is that all of us have to listen to the insane advertising for such a long period, but if the various institutions want to waste their money, I guess that is for them to decide.
Tue, 09/16/2014 - 4:03pm
This is the time of year when the mute button on your TV remote control is your best friend, I have been giving it a heavy workout so far. :)
Mark G
Tue, 09/16/2014 - 4:25pm
Time and time again the voters have shown that the amount of money spent doesn't actually have that big of an effect on the elections. Politicians assume too much that the voters are idiots and will fall for any line they are fed. Voters are perfectly capable of being informed, and they form their own opinions. Out-of-state billionaires trying to influence elections can often have the opposite effect. Voters notice the obvious bias in the political ads and Americans are generally savvy enough to recognize a sales pitch and catch the weasel words ("up to", "as many as") and disclaimers. This is why SCOTUS has upheld that political speech is the most protected of speech under the First Amendment.
Charles Richards
Tue, 09/16/2014 - 4:51pm
Mr. Power says, " In other words, Mr. Out-of-State Billionaire/Ideologue can spends a ton telling Michigan voters who to support and why, regardless of what’s going on in their minds." Isn't that the essence of political speech? People telling other people " who to support and why." What is left of the First Amendment when you take that away? And is it illegitimate for a "billionaire" or "ideologue" to engage in political speech? The Constitution just guarantees equality before the law; it does not guarantee equality of influence. And who is to determine who is an "ideologue" and who is not? Wouldn't doing so constitute an out and out limitation of speech? Such limitation of speech has become routine on college campuses; with speakers whose views don't mesh with what is considered acceptable by the institution being denied the opportunity to speak. Even eminent scholars such as E. O. Wilson have been assaulted because their listeners could not tolerate the discomfort of disagreement. Mr. Power says that big donors "Spend that money, that is, without the voters knowing who is giving it or what their motivation may be." Why would either their identity or motivation matter? What percentage of Michigan voters aren't capable of evaluating the content of political ads? Surely, voters are capable of discerning when someone is trying to obtain economic rents. They did so in the last election when they defeated the UAW's amendment. That was also the case with the SEIU amendment. Concerning what issue does Mr. Power consider Michigan voters incompetent? Greg McNeilly may be correct in his assessment of the Republicans' campaign strategy, but it has nothing to do with campaign finance. It may be that the Republicans have chosen an unwise political strategy, but that is their decision to make. In any event, the issues independents care about can be best realized with a strong economy, which is a Republican issue.
Tue, 09/16/2014 - 8:04pm
Does this article sound more about worrying over the symptom than interest about the cause? Is the issue about who pays for ads or should we be wondering why people will listen to the ads? Mr. Power seems to have the answer without ever asking a question. He appears only to see how knowing who privately paid campaign/political advertising as the answer and he seems not interested in looking beyond his answer. He never seems to ask why there are the ads, to ask whether they are effective, to why people read/listen/watch the ads. I see the issue to be about helping voters be better informed rather than focusing on who is spending money with the media. I would like to ask people how well informed they are, why they feel that way and what more they might like to know, why they give attention to the ads, what would they like to know that they aren’t getting now. There seems to be many questions to ask before there will be an effective answer. I would like us (the readers) to look for the cause rather than be narrowly concentrated a symptom. I wonder what others consider the cause/problem is.
Wed, 09/17/2014 - 12:24pm
In view of the fact that 2014 marks a year that we will not only vote for a new Governor, or re-elect the incumbent, as well as all the Senators and Representatives in the legislature, I would like to present my political wish list: 1.Top down management in State government. Having been a State employee for over 20 years, I have observed that our State government, for the most part, operates State affairs in a very counter-productive manner by employing top down management. To clarify what I mean by top down management, this is to say that the people at the top of government give directives, and are not receptive to any feedback from the people down below. In our State government this has had the effect of front line employees suggestions ignored, or dismissed out of hand, as to how to deliver the best services to the public in the most cost effective manner, in spite of the fact that they are the ones who deliver the services, and know where the inefficiencies exist. Top down management also has the effect of causing mad moral among State employees, less than optimal output, wasted tax dollars, and the disenfranchisement of many segments of the public. 2.High supervisor to employee ratio. Michigan has nearly 3 times the Federal recommended guideline for supervisor to employee ratio for optimal government operations. Coupled with many redundant and administrative positions in State departments and agencies, that have been created by the system of cronyism in Michigan, our State is a poster child for the “Too many Chiefs and not enough Indians” phenomenon. 3.Third-party government contracts. As the State work force has been reduced by nearly tow thirds over the past couple of decades, government work that was previously done by State employees is now being done by third party contractors that are not only more costly, but many are out-sourced to other States, and even other Countries. This equates to Michigan tax dollars and jobs leaving our State, and contributes to the shrinking our our economy. If people that we elect, or re-elect, are leaders, who have the political will to address these three issues, it would result in savings of hundreds of millions of dollars in the short term, and tens of billions in the long term, and result in not having to make harmful cuts in public services, free up tax dollars for improving infrastructure, education, and virtually all other needs of the public good, while not having to increase taxes. The last issues on my wish list are far more complicated and will require extraordinary practical wisdom to resolve. Aristotle said that practical wisdom consists of a combination of moral will, and moral skill. Sadly, there is lack of both among those who hold, and run for, public office. These last issues are the current situation of lobbyist having unfettered access to those who hold public office, with virtually no checks and balances, that results in legislation being sold to the highest bidder, no system to insure transparency and accountability of all three branch's of government, election reform, and the aforementioned issue of "dark money" in political campaigns. Without a public mandate to address these basic foundational issues, all other issues will be very difficult to resolve, if ever, any time soon. The people of Michigan need to be informed as to what the diseases are in our government, and elect leaders who will dedicate themselves to eradicate them, as opposed to only putting Band-aids on the symptoms. This is precisely where true leaders come into the picture, who will employ bottom up and horizontal leadership to bring about the positive changes that are so desperately need in Michigan. Many will ask how a voter can go about identifying a true leader. I would suggest that we stop voting for to elect, or re-elect candidates who only speak political platitudes, overly focus on emotionally divisive social issues, to avoid addressing issues that I have mentioned, as well as other more central issues, their record of accomplishments in life that clearly demonstrate the characteristic of servant-leadership, and their giving direct answers to direct questions that concern the common good. The citizens of our fair State have the opportunity this year to demand these changes and send the message to Lansing that politics as usual will no longer be tolerated.