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With Political Ads, Consider the Messenger Behind the Message
By Damon Circosta
Published: Sep. 20, 2010
RALEIGH - In these troubled economic times you would be hard-pressed to find someone who is opposed to job security. Like prosperity or apple pie, job security is a term that just about everyone thinks is a good thing.
Here in North Carolina, a group called Americans for Job Security (AJS) has been running television ads encouraging viewers to oppose some candidates in the upcoming elections. Emboldened by a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that deregulated some key aspects of our campaign finance laws, AJS and other similar groups are poised to break all sorts of records for non-candidate election spending.
This is a new day in the world of political campaigns. With no limits on the amount of money that a union or a corporation can spend to sway an election, the candidates themselves will have a hard time controlling their message. Well-funded outside groups can swoop in and outspend nearly every candidate in the country.
Gone are the days when two candidates engage in a relatively even contest to see who wins an election. Here to stay are organizations with innocuous-sounding names, deep pockets and very little accountability.
It's tough to find out much about organizations such as Americans for Job Security. The AJS website spends a great deal of time talking about the resources they have to influence policy and their willingness to spend during election season. What we don't know is who funds the organization and why.
Their website attempts to explain this secrecy by saying that disclosure of their membership would cloud the merits of their argument by tying their message to perceptions of the people who are funding it.
But isn't a key component of evaluating the merits of a message being able to know the identity of the messenger? If Americans for Job Security wants us to vote against one candidate or vote for another, shouldn't they tell us who they are? The little-red-riding-hood principle is at work here. We don't know if groups like these are sweet grandmothers or big bad wolves.
The folks at Americans for Job Security have told us a few things. According to their website they have "more than 1,000 members" and have "raised more than $15.5 million in 2008 membership dues alone.” Since they don't have to disclose exact totals we can only guess that the average AJS member gave the group $15,000 in 2008.
Regardless of how wealthy someone is, parting with that much cash isn't something normal people do without wanting something in return. I'm guessing that in exchange for such hefty membership dues AJS is promising more than a tote bag.
AJS isn't alone. Groups like these play on both sides of the political spectrum. They aren't concerned with the big picture or the common good.
What they want is to own the legislative process and they are willing to spend heavily to get their way. Legislation has been introduced in Congress that would force organizations like these to disclose where they get their funding, but that legislation has stalled, due in part to heavy pressure by these very groups.
It is too late to improve transparency for the 2010 election cycle, so we won't know who is funding all of these extremely negative ads. The long-term solution is more information and perhaps some new thinking about our campaign finance regulations. In the short term the best we voters can do is look beyond the hostile ads paid for by groups with innocent-sounding names.
If they aren't willing to tell us who they are, why should we listen to them?