On Saturday, protesters will stage demonstrations across the country to mark the two year anniversary of the Citizens United, the Supreme Court case that opened the door to unlimited, and largely secret, corporate money flooding into American elections. But not everyone is grimacing at the prospect of special interests buying the 2012 vote.
Last summer, Sir Martin Sorrell, chief executive of the world's largest advertising and lobbying corporation, the WPP Group, told investors that he is bullish for this year. Political spending in the United States, Sorrell said confidently, “has already kicked off” and will rise to $4 billion — “as best as we can anticipate.” “The Supreme Court decision recently,” he said referencing Citizens United, “on lobbying and funding of lobbying, pushes it further.”
Most American media outlets segregate campaign spending from from special interest lobbying. But the British CEO's conflation of the two may be a more accurate representation.
The WPP Group is perhaps the most important lobbying corporation you've never heard of. The holding company owns the top players in the influence industry, including firms aligned with both parties. WPP owns Blue State Digital, the digital strategy firm behind Obama's 2008 web operation, as well as the the Glover Park Group, the lobbying and public relations operation run by ex-Clintonites. Mark Penn, the polling the guru behind Hillary Clinton's loss in the Democratic primary last cycle, heads a WPP-owned firm.
The slice of $4 billion in political spending WPP Group hopes to make off the election won't just be from Democrats. Ogilvy Government Relations, a powerhouse K Street company and WPP-owned firm, is run by Wayne Berman, one of Mitt Romney's most productive fundraisers. Charlie Black, the GOP uber-lobbyist who closely guided John McCain's campaign and recently signed up with team Romney, leads the Prime Policy Group, yet another corporate lobbying operation owned by the WPP Group.
In addition to lobbying, WPP Group owns a fleet of public relations and advertising companies in the United States, including mega-firms like JWT, the firm behind top name brands like Nokia and Smirnoff.
With Citizens United, a trend that has existed for years in Washington exploded, with lobbyists gaining a new weapon to exert influence over elected officials. Scott Reed, a corporate lobbyist, told the National Journal before the 2010 midterm elections that he was easily signing up clients in the health care and energy sector for a 501(c)(4) nonprofit to run ads that year. The implication was clear: not only could businesses hire him to lobby, but they could dump money in his nonprofit to take down candidates who support reforming and regulating their industry.
For the WPP Group, which owns firms involved in the influence game from top to bottom, the more corporate money in elections the better. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, along with its state affiliates like the Michigan and California Chamber of Commerce, will probably spend tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars lobbying and running ads this year. We now have parties embracing SuperPACs and begging wealthy donors to cash. Obama's campaign has pledged to raise $1 billion. Outside special interest groups, including the array of groups formed by Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie, will certainly break the records they made in 2010. All the better, for WPP Group and other businesses in the lobbying and paid media world.
Sorrell made the point that despite an overall down economy, he expects profits to rise in 2012 from the “maxiquadrennial” effect of the London summer Olympics, the UEFA soccer championships, and, most surprisingly, the American election. (A press release from WPP Group clarified that the political spending is the “most important” of the three once in four year events.)
The $4 billion political spending figure he cited in his investor presentation might even be conservative. Some estimates peg the number at $5.6 billion or more. And those numbers only estimate overt candidate-related spending. The fossil fuel industry, health care industry, and other major groups are sure to spend billions in “issue” advertising — those seemingly benign ads that have someone standing next to an oil refinery, saying that oil companies love investing in innovation and science. Those ads, which should count as lobbying or political media, are never disclosed with the Federal Election Commission, yet are targeted carefully in districts for politicians wavering on important votes.
Will 2012 be the biggest election ever sold?
Already, the New York Times reports that in South Carolina, nearly every ad spot available on local television has been purchased before the primary. Facing few prospects of open air time, Rick Santorum's campaign has been forced to purchase ads during television shows that regularly lampoon him, like NBC'sSaturday Night Live.
And with the rise of clandestine SuperPACs and related 501(c)(4) and 501(c)(6) attack ad groups, lobbyists have a new avenue for exerting influence. Next week, Americans for Prosperity — a 501(c)(4) that does not disclose any of its donors, but was founded and financed in part by the billionaire Koch brothers — plans to air a $6 million dollar volley of attack ads against President Obama.
Voters are confused and cynical because of the ads; and reporters are increasingly frustrated with the lack of transparency with many of these groups empowered by the Supreme Court's decision to unleash corporate money in American elections. But for lobbying conglomerates like the WPP Group, there is something to look forward to in this year's political spending bonanza.