After months of denouncing the influence of special-interest money in politics, Senator Barack Obama is nonetheless entering a critical phase of the presidential campaign benefiting from millions of dollars being spent outside campaign finance rules.
Mr. Obama has repudiated a California group, Vote Hope, that is working on his behalf. But it has pressed on and, along with a sister organization called PowerPac.org, is planning to spend up to $4 million promoting him in California and conducting voter registration drives aimed at blacks in 11 Southern states.
The group has already run radio advertisements with local ministers in South Carolina. New advertisements, some for television, have been prepared for California, one with the rap star Common and others focusing on black and Latino voters.
As the campaign treasuries of Mr. Obama and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton are rapidly draining heading into the nominating contests in more than 20 states on Tuesday, independent political groups — whether so-called 527 groups, political action committees, nonprofit organizations or trade unions — are stepping in to help fill the void. The efforts of these groups, particularly 527s, which are named for a section of the tax code under which they fall, worry campaign finance watchdogs because many can take unlimited contributions from donors and have limited oversight.
Mr. Obama’s campaign says it has taken pains to discourage these efforts on its behalf, and in fact the campaign has no recourse in controlling them. “We do not think people should be donating to 527s,” said Bill Burton, a campaign spokesman. “We would rather have them involved in our campaign. It is our hope that anyone who supports Obama does so directly through his campaign and not through these outside groups.”
The Clinton campaign, which has not made an issue of outside help, has been a much greater beneficiary of these groups. Mrs. Clinton has large unions representing government employees and teachers on her side, as well as the politically savvy feminist organization Emily’s List. The two unions plan to spend millions of dollars on her behalf through direct mail, phone banks and get-out-the-vote efforts in Super Tuesday states.
The teachers’ union, which has 1.4 million members, has budgeted $3 million for the effort, while the government employees’ union has earmarked $5 million. Meanwhile, Emily’s List has an effort directed at women just outside the New York City media market.
Mr. Obama has lined up support from unions representing plumbers and pipefitters, as well as hospitality and garment workers. One union, Unite Here, plans to mobilize its 450,000 members through direct mail advertisements, phone banks and door-to-door visits in Super Tuesday states. It will also continue efforts, begun in Nevada, to run pro-Obama television and radio spots, many in Spanish and aimed at voters in California. The plumbers’ and pipefitters’ union, which has 340,000 members, said it was working with the Obama campaign to get out its membership and was encouraging members to donate time as Obama campaign volunteers.
Unlike 527s, unions can coordinate some activities with campaigns, and spending by their political action committees must be reported to federal regulators.
The efforts by Vote Hope pose a particular challenge to Mr. Obama’s campaign, given his repeated criticism of Mrs. Clinton and former Senator John Edwards for having accepted similar help.
Referring to Mr. Edwards, Mr. Obama said in December in the heat of the Iowa campaign, “John said yesterday he didn’t believe in these 527s.” Then he added, “You can’t say yesterday you don’t believe in it, and today three-quarters of a million dollars is being spent for you.”
The two California groups supporting Mr. Obama, Vote Hope, which is a 527, and PowerPac.org, which is a nonprofit group, are both creations of Steve Phillips, a longtime social activist and lawyer who founded PowerPac.org five years ago.
“We have a chance to make an impact,” Mr. Phillips said. “There are not the resources within the Obama campaign to organize. You need a dedicated organization with a dedicated revenue stream.”
Mr. Phillips donated $95,000 to the effort. He is also the son-in-law of Herbert Sandler, a billionaire banker and major donor to the Democratic Party and liberal causes. Vote Hope plans to spend about $1 million supporting Mr. Obama in California, while PowerPac.org has budgeted $2 million to $3 million for the nonpartisan voter registration drive in the South, help that could not come at a better time.
“These groups are critical to the campaigns,” said Kenneth Gross, a campaign finance lawyer who advises Democratic candidates. “The campaigns are spread so thin on Feb. 5, in terms of geography and television coverage. There is never enough money to do what you want. So these groups can step in and play a critical role.”
So long as unions are politicking among their own members, they can coordinate their efforts with individual candidates and campaigns. While rules may vary according to the structure of the group, many outside organizations, like nonprofit groups and 527s, cannot coordinate their activities with a campaign. Some of these groups can receive donations in unlimited amounts, or in amounts that exceed campaign finance limits, and with looser disclosure rules.
According to Vote Hope’s Web site, its goal is “to get hundreds of thousands of new votes pledged for Obama — starting Jan. 9 and leading up to the state’s Feb. 5, 2008 primary.”
To that end, Vote Hope and PowerPac have set up what amounts to a parallel campaign to the Obama organization, specifically directed at blacks, Latinos and young people.
A Vote Hope advertisement featuring the rapper Common saying “Obama is down for us” has already run on television in San Francisco and can be found on the group’s Web site and on YouTube. Vote Hope’s Web site is also maintaining its own voter data bank of Obama supporters.
In addition, the Web publication Politico.com posted a memorandum sent to Vote Hope supporters outlining a PowerPac.org drive to hire people — at $12.50 an hour — to find voters for Mr. Obama, drive them to the polls and then check with polling locations to be certain they have voted.
The Obama campaign says it would rather the money come directly to the campaign itself.
“There is much that you and others associated with Vote Hope can accomplish for the Obama candidacy within his official organization,” the Obama campaign said in a Dec. 28 letter to Mr. Phillips. “An independent effort outside that organization undermines the senator’s message.”
Among unions, Tom Snyder, the political director of Unite Here, which represents a number of groups including hospitality and garment workers, said the group would be sending a big “positive pro-Obama” message in Super Tuesday states, just as it did in Nevada and South Carolina. The group’s political action committee has about $660,000 on hand for its efforts.
“We plan to communicate with our members and turn them out,” Mr. Snyder said.
‘Tsunami’ of activity
On behalf of Mrs. Clinton, Edward J. McElroy, president of the American Federation of Teachers, predicts a “tsunami” of activity as Tuesday draws closer. This will include phone banks, door-to-door visits and fliers on issues like education and the economy, distributed to a membership that is about 70 percent women and has an 80 percent voter registration rate.
Equally active on behalf of Mrs. Clinton is the American Federation of State, Local and Municipal Employees, which will be sending staff members to important Super Tuesday states to drum up support among its members. For the entire election cycle, including races for president, Congress and governor, the union has budgeted $60 million.
“We will have waves of mailings leading up to Feb. 5,” said Larry Scanlon, political director for the union. Mr. Scanlon estimates that “several million” fliers will be mailed, to be followed up by both live and recorded telephone calls.