How Presidential Candidates and Political Nonprofits Coordinate without Coordinating

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July 17, 2011; Source: Los Angeles Times | How do all those electioneering 501(c)(4) organizations run political ads in favor of or opposed to various political candidates without coordinating with the candidates’ own campaigns — and thereby jeopardizing their (c)(4) status?  For example, Crossroads GPS, a product of the politically fertile mind of Karl Rove, is spending $20 million in July and August alone on political ads. It’s probably easy right now for Rove and Crossroads. Although there is a multitude of Republican candidates running or possible running in the primaries, they are all opposed to the reelection of Barack Obama, so little coordination with the Republican campaign operations is needed. 

But Crossroads plans to spend $120 million in 2012, presumably most of it when the Republicans will have selected their candidate from the likes of Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Tim Pawlenty, Michelle Bachmann, or others to be named later. According to one unnamed political operative, every Republican candidate will be setting up “autonomous” or “independent” vehicles — some as SuperPACs — some as 501(c)(4)s, to do things that may be uncomfortable for their campaign committees to do directly.  “Everybody will have one — there will be a sidecar for every motorcycle,” he said. You know that people will charge that these entities working in support of either the Republicans or the Democrats are coordinating their activities with either Obama or his eventual opponent. 

If the restriction on these outside entities is that they cannot officially “coordinate” with the candidates’ campaign machines, how do they do that?  Do they simply lie about actual coordination, meeting in back rooms thick with cigar-smoke, everyone armed with explanations of plausible deniability? Do they exist behind coordination firewalls, guessing and hoping that their attack ads do not undermine or embarrass the message of the official campaigns?

According to the Los Angeles Times, “The new dynamic means that the candidates will need to telegraph their approach to allied groups working on their behalf, without officially coordinating.”  A Republican strategist, Brad Todd, described the process as akin to “running a no-huddle offense in football.” He continued,  “Everyone has got to have hand signals and read each other’s eyes.”  It seems that if there were a Watergate reprise in the 2012 election cycle, the burglars would be charged, perhaps more like baseball than football, with stealing the third base coach’s signals to batters and the catcher’s signals to the pitcher.—Rick Cohen