Politicians are always looking for ways to fund the expensive task of campaigning. Issue ads — advertisements designed by special interest groups to promote a viewpoint on a particular issue — are a way that candidates can get free advertising. The ads help certain candidates by highlighting favorable stances on controversial issues and harm other candidates by portraying them in a negative light.
These ads have been used by a number of special interest groups regarding issues ranging from labor to health care. So far, the two major political parties have stayed away from issue ads, leaving it up to special interest groups campaign for them. While certainly beneficial to the endorsed candidates, issue ads mislead viewers by distorting the importance of particular issues and create a further unbalance in the campaign scene.
Recently, Americans for Tax Reform launched a $4.5 million issue ad campaign in seven states, each featuring a Republican senator up for re-election in 2000. Each ad contains similar information, but the senator featured is different for each state. The purpose of these ads is to pressure President Clinton into signing a $792 billion Republican tax-cut bill.
The money spent on issue ads does not count against a candidate’s campaign spending limits. In fact, for a candidate to collaborate on the ad is against federal campaign finance law. On the other hand, endorsed candidates receive the positive effects of the ad campaign. For example, U.S. Sen. Rod Grams, R-Minn., a featured Republican in the new ads, will receive $600,000 in free publicity because of the ad buy in Minnesota. This is one-fourth the total amount Grams spent in his 1994 Senate race.
The lax regulation of issue ads is one of the biggest advantages for politicians and special interest groups. “Anything that doesn’t say ‘vote for’ or ‘vote against’ essentially qualifies as an issue ad,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Pennsylvania. Issue ads skirt the laws that were intended to create more of a balance among all candidates. With this kind of support behind certain candidates, the balance is thrown off among who and what is being endorsed.
“The walls that had been created to limit the role of money are crumbling. Campaign regulation has become increasingly meaningless in the practice because of this continual pushing of the envelope,” said Lawrence Jacobs, a political science professor at the University.
Issue ads let special interest groups have an even larger say in the political scene than they already do. This means the groups with the most money get their issue to the public more effectively with the added benefit of minimal regulation.
Special interest groups should not have this next level of influence added to their already extremely influential role in the political scene. As issue ads with becoming an increasingly large part of the campaign scene, they should face more regulation in order to maintain the balance intended by campaign laws.