Conservative nonprofit groups have spent tens of millions of dollars on overtly political advertising this election season, testing the limits of what is legal under campaign rules that restrict how much such groups can spend on advocacy.
But the lesser-known corollary to that effort is that these same groups, such as Americans for Prosperity and Crossroads GPS, some of the biggest operators on the political nonprofit stage, also are quietly building colossal ground-game operations — activities, they say, that ensure they comply with the law.
As “social welfare” groups organized under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code, such groups are able to do some political activity, but their “primary purpose” cannot be political advocacy.
The groups have interpreted that to mean that every ad they run must be matched more than dollar-for-dollar with self-professed nonpartisan spending, which often means on-the-ground operations.
“The way the law reads, it cannot be the primary focal point,” said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity. “Using activists going door to door, that’s not express advocacy.”
Hitting the street
This weekend in Burke, a Mitt Romney yard sign faced off with a Barack Obama sign in the yard across the street. The Obama sign was paid for by Unite Here, a labor union organization.
In between the houses, green-shirted volunteers from Americans for Prosperity were canvassing the neighborhood in the Washington suburb, stepping over literature from Working America, another union organization — evidence that this was not the neighborhood’s first door-knocking session.
Americans for Prosperity, a free-market advocacy nonprofit tied to the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers, had outfitted the dozen volunteers with Samsung tablet computers, which used GPS to direct the volunteers to homes that had been singled out for visits.
When someone answers the door, the volunteers identify Americans for Prosperity as a nonpartisan group and ask one question: Do you think President Obama’s economic policies have helped or hurt? The response is keyed into the tablet, and the results are beamed instantly to other canvassers and staff to avoid duplication or data loss.
Meg Jaworowski, a volunteer with the group who was sidelined with a broken foot, remained at home and dialed one number that was automatically connected to homes on a list one at a time. The technology has allowed the group’s volunteers to call 6.7 million homes, with a goal of 10 million by Election Day on Nov. 6.
“I’ve worked in campaigns for a long time, and these people know how to do it,” she said.
Residents who tell Americans for Prosperity that they think Mr. Obama has hurt America will receive follow-up calls and mailers urging them to vote, and will be alerted when state affiliates mobilize on a particular issue.
Volunteers don’t try to persuade those who disagree, but they engage supporters and encourage them to bring family members and friends to vote.
“The latest [unemployment] statistics are crock, a lie,” said one homeowner who answered the door and was especially receptive to the message of Americans for Prosperity because he had just lost his job as a military contractor. Some conservatives have complained about the accuracy of recent Labor Department figures this month showing that the politically sensitive national unemployment rate had dropped unexpectedly below 8 percent.
“I think that was blatantly obvious,” canvasser Rosemary Storaska, an economics teacher at a public school, told the homeowner.
“People focus on what they see — in fact, can’t escape — on the airwaves. But this other spending is a big deal,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political spending. “The investment is substantial, the work especially counters the unions’ longtime advantage in the ground war, and it likely represents a foundation for such campaigns in the future.”
Democrats and some campaign finance analysts have argued that groups like Americans for Prosperity are chiefly about politics, and that their activities run afoul of the law governing nonprofits.
“It’s clear a lot of these groups’ primary purpose is to influence elections,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Maryland Democrat.
The statute says nonprofits must be engaged only in “social welfare” issues, but courts said “insubstantial” political activity is acceptable. The Internal Revenue Service later clarified that ruling with language saying activity designed to promote a particular candidate may not be the groups’ “primary purpose.”
Some groups have said that means as much as 49 percent of their activity can be “express advocacy” — but they also know that the interpretation is up for debate.
Seeking to counter that, officials with Americans for Prosperity say they will spend far less on advocacy than they do on other activities.
The group already has run $32 million in political ads, but it has spent about $38 million on ads that don’t directly urge viewers to vote for a particular candidate, spokesman Levi Russell said.
All told, Americans for Prosperity will spend $100 million, up from earlier estimates of $80 million, he said, which leaves about $30 million for canvassing, phone calls, rallies, a 200-member staff and a giveaway of gasoline discounted to $1.84 a gallon — the price when Mr. Obama took office.
A challenge to unions
Americans for Prosperity’s efforts represent a conservative challenge to a tactic that has long been employed by liberal-leaning trade unions. This year, members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) have done the vast majority of the door-to-door canvassing, knocking on 1 million doors between June and last week. To meet a goal it set this summer, canvassers will have to knock on half that number in the next three weeks alone. If it succeeds, the SEIU will dramatically outpace Americans for Prosperity on individual home visits (the group aims for 150,000 homes) and narrowly on phone calls (SEIU aims to make a total of 13 million calls).
Last weekend, SEIU members wielding iPhones knocked on 7,200 doors in Virginia.
The union’s political accounts have at least $12 million in the bank. SEIU has spent more than $9 million on pro-Democrat canvassing, including $2.3 million to take place over the next two weeks.
That money includes salaries. Workers who are members of the union have taken leave from their jobs for up to two months to canvass, with the union paying their day jobs’ salaries during that time. But it also includes money to print literature and procure vans for volunteer canvassers, in which case the money would go a lot further.
While Americans for Prosperity found its most receptive audience among the unemployed, SEIU members use their day jobs to speak with authority on specific issues, such as nurses opining on health care reform.