Republicans attuned to conservative third-party efforts say that with less than two weeks to go until Election Day, the prospects for any 11th-hour, anti-Obama ad campaigns are highly unlikely.
Many in the party, including inside the McCain campaign, have held out hope that a deep-pocketed benefactor would emerge to bankroll ads in the campaign’s final days — spots that might, for example, resurrect the most incendiary clips from the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
But thanks largely to lack of passion for McCain within the conservative base, diminished hopes that he can win and a sharp decline in the stock market that has badly pinched donors’ pockets, veteran Republican operatives say it appears almost certain that what could be the most damaging line of attack against the Democratic nominee will be left on the shelf.
“It’s Oct. 21, and if you can’t say it by Oct. 21, then chances are you’re not going to say anything,” said Chris LaCivita, the strategist behind the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in 2004. LaCivita has been working for a new conservative third-party group this year, the American Issues Project.
That group, known in the political community as AIP, was eyed by some in the GOP as a potential major player in taking on Obama. It spent nearly $3 million in key states in August on a tough ad tying the Illinois senator to '60s-era domestic terrorist William Ayers and promised additional spots in the fall campaign.
That never happened.
“Donors just weren’t willing to give the money,” explains LaCivita. “They were hurt badly in the market crash and they were always concerned about how McCain would react.”
The timing of the financial crisis couldn’t have been worse for Republicans. When Lehman Brothers went under on Sept. 15, McCain was tied or in the margin of error in national polls. But when his poll numbers fell along with the stock market, wealthy conservatives saw little reason to invest their shrunken holdings on what was far from a sure thing.
“Republican donors, at the end of day, aren’t stupid,” said another Republican familiar with third-party activities this cycle. “They’re not going to throw good money after bad.”
And it wasn’t just the economic bad news — McCain did little to help his own cause.
Two Republican sources involved in third-party groups said the Arizona senator’s second debate performance in early October, a pivotal moment in the campaign when he and running mate Sarah Palin had begun to ratchet up their attacks, was deflating to some donors.
These sources said that after McCain didn’t use the Nashville debate to aggressively go after Obama, one prominent conservative financier remarked: “I’m not going to bother investing anymore.”
And donors were always fearful they would be rebuked by their party’s notoriously unpredictable nominee if they underwrote a major effort.
“McCain never gave a real wink and said, ‘Go ahead, boys,’” explained one operative close to a third-party group this year.
Another GOP strategist lamented that McCain lacked a core group of rich friends who were willing to part with their money. Harold Simmons, a Dallas billionaire, underwrote the entire cost of the initial Ayers ad for AIP — but his investment wasn’t matched by other wealthy Republicans.
“In 2004, Bush had a cadre of donors who wanted to see him succeed,” said this source, citing “oil guys.”
“But McCain doesn’t have that, and this is where it really hurts.”
One of those oil guys was T. Boone Pickens. But Pickens, who played a major role in funding the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, sat out this race, preferring to spend his money promoting a massive clean energy campaign.
For most of the donor pool for a robust third-party effort, this cycle appears to have come down to dollars and cents. Many, like Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, saw their portfolios slide, reducing their interest greatly in practicing their political hobby on the side.
Adelson had been counted on as the chief benefactor of Freedom’s Watch, a group originally billed as the right-wing equivalent of MoveOn.org.
But sources say Adelson has pulled the plug on the group, and that it will only wind up spending $25 million to $30 million this cycle — a far cry from their original vision.
Freedom’s Watch had to greatly scale back its ambitions, never aired a single ad in the presidential race and has an uncertain future after the election.
In another contrast with 2004 and the Swift Boat Veterans, there was never money lined up in advance to fund a serious effort against Obama.
“You’ve got to have a sustained campaign,” said Greg Mueller, a conservative GOP strategist who did the PR for the Swift Boat operation, noting that it went up in late-July and stayed on the air. “On either side that never really materialized. Everybody was sort of nibbling around edges.”
Another operative close to third-party groups said part of the problem was what didn’t happen after AIP broadcast its Ayers ad in August.
The media coverage of the spot, which begin airing during the Democratic convention, was far less pointed than had been expected, depriving conservatives of the sort of echo effect they enjoyed against John F. Kerry in 2004.
“It’s about spurring the mainstream media to do the right thing,” said this source, meaning to drive both free replays of the ads and subsequent stories about the underlying charges being made. “The media did cover the fact that, hey, maybe John Kerry wasn’t completely honest about his service in Vietnam.”
But the Ayers ad got little pickup, overwhelmed by Obama’s stadium acceptance speech, McCain’s shocking selection of Sarah Palin and then the Republican convention.
“It’s like an initial stock offering. If it doesn’t make somewhat of a run, people aren’t as quick to invest in the next one.”
There will be some additional anti-Obama spots aired before Election Day. Mueller promised another wave of ads for clients targeting the Democrat on judicial issues and abortion.
And there remains the remote possibility that a wealthy Republican will emerge to put down some cash in the final days.
“Some guy could wake up and call me and say, ‘Here is $20 million,’” LaCivita said. “But I don’t see it happening.”
And in a matter of days, that won’t be possible.
An operative working for a third-party group said they were told by Denver stations — where candidates and outside groups are airing ads in competitive presidential, senatorial and congressional races — a week ago to get in their buys because there were not going to be slots available much longer.
“They said, ‘Get in your orders through the election,’” said this source.
“Time is drying up but not gone,” said Evan Tracey, who heads the ad-monitoring Campaign Media Analysis Group. “For ads to work, they need repetition, so if anyone is going to get involved, they either need a very strong (and unique) message or some kind of national footprint to have any impact.”
By law, campaigns are not allowed to coordinate with outside entities. But McCain aides don’t seem hopeful that help is on the way or interested in sending any signals.
“I have no idea what’s going on with third-party groups,” is all Rick Davis, McCain’s campaign manager, would say this week.