Cruz and Super-PACs Echo Each Other's Anti-Trump Ads

Released within hours of each other, the similarly themed spots show how campaigns and outside groups can spread the same message without violating the law.
Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Ted Cruz’s campaign and a pair of super-PACs have started spreading the news about Donald J. Trump’s "New York values," running strikingly similar political ads in Iowa that illustrate how independent outside groups can amplify a campaign’s message without running afoul of the law.

The anti-Trump spots feature clips from a 1999 interview the billionaire gave to NBC's Meet the Press. Cruz’s campaign ad and one by Stand for Truth, one of the super-PACs supporting the Texas senator’s presidential campaign, both begin with the billionaire developer’s observation to Tim Russert that "he's lived in Manhattan all his life" and that his values are "different than if I lived in Iowa." They also highlight Trump's remark in response to a question from Russert on partial-birth abortion, to which Trump eventually responds, "I am pro-choice in every respect." Another pro-Cruz super-PAC called Keep the Promise I is running its own ad that bores down on Trump’s "pro-choice" response. Like the other two ads, which hit the same notes, it hammers home the takeaway message that Trump is "not a conservative."

Cruz's campaign and the two super-PACs all posted their ads to YouTube on Monday, January 25. According to data from Kantar Campaign Media Analysis Group, which follows political advertising on broadcast and cable outlets, the two super-PACs ran their ads the same day, with the spot sponsored by Stand for Truth running in Iowa while Keep the Promise I aired its ad in South Carolina. The Cruz campaign's "New York values" ad first aired in Iowa on Tuesday.

Though all three ads use the same footage to make the same point at the same time—the final week before the Iowa caucuses—they’re perfectly legal under the current campaign finance system.

Unlike candidates, super-PACs, a byproduct of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, can raise funds in unlimited amounts from individuals, corporations and labor unions. To prevent their big donors from influencing candidates, super-PACs are required to operate independently of campaigns. They even file a statement with the Federal Election Commission saying they won’t support candidates or committees with contributions or through "coordinated communications."

Even with those restrictions, presidential candidates quickly realized the value of having a super-PAC on their side. Campaign aides of Mitt Romney created Restore Our Future, which supported the Massachusetts governor in his 2012 bid for the White House, in October 2010. Since then, with a few exceptions including Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders, candidates seeking the White House get a helping hand from a closely allied super-PAC.

And as long as campaigns and their super-PAC counterparts adhere to some narrowly drawn rules, there’s no violation of federal election law.

There are a few ways a super-PAC can be shown to have coordinated with a campaign—for example, if it republishes materials created by a campaign. Restore Our Future was fined $50,000 in December 2015 for using almost in its entirety an ad created and aired by Romney’s 2008 presidential committee.

But the three ads hammering Trump begin with footage produced by a third party: Meet the Press. And that’s a distinction that makes a huge difference.

"The material in these ads came from a private media company," said Paul S. Ryan, deputy executive director of the Campaign Legal Center, which filed the complaint against Restore Our Future over its use of the old Romney ad.

Because the campaign and the super-PACs could independently acquire the same footage from a third party, there is no proof of coordination. "Clearly, what we’re seeing here is a campaign sticking out some messaging and that messaging being copied," Ryan said.

Because the super-PAC ads aren’t carbon copies of Cruz’s ad, there’s no foul. That means to prove coordination, there has to be proof of conduct.

"There has to be actual interaction between the candidate and the outside spender," Ryan said. "The conduct standards are pretty tough to meet for a regulator."

And that’s one reason why so few complaints brought to the FEC about coordination between super-PACs and campaigns have resulted in penalties. Though the rules are intended to keep them apart, it’s easy for a super-PAC, funded by donations that a candidate couldn't accept, to support a message created by his campaign.

"More than corporate influence on elections, the bigger impact of Citizens United is the 'non-coordination’ coordination between candidates and independent groups," said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, which studies money in politics.

"Campaigns and their surrogates are able to stay on the right side of the law without honoring the spirit of the law," she said.

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