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Do special interest groups hurt candidates?


The Darker Side of Special Interest Groups
Republican candidate Mike Huckabee, shown on Super Tuesday 2008, faced blame for push poll calls that favored him.
Republican candidate Mike Huckabee, shown on Super Tuesday 2008, faced blame for push poll calls that favored him.
Rick Gershon/Getty Images

If you were a registered Republican living in South Carolina during the 2007 holiday season, you may have gotten a Christmas card claiming to be from the Mitt Romney presidential campaign. Romney is a Mormon, and the card includes a passage that supports polygamy. The practice of having more than one spouse was once allowed in the Mormon faith, but was forbidden long ago. The card was part of a smear campaign designed to besmirch Romney by playing upon ignorance of the Mormon church's practices [source: NPR].

In past centuries, candidates had to come up with their own smear campaigns. In the 1950 Florida Senate election, George Smathers mounted a smear campaign against rival Claude Peppers, alleging that Peppers' sister was a "thespian" and his brother a "practicing Homo sapiens" [source: Fox News]. Smathers won, although with the advent of faster communication and smarter people, candidates have reigned in such blatant nonsense.

Independent groups have stepped up to fill in the void, though. Some special interest groups may have the best intentions at heart, like getting their candidate into office. Other groups' special interest is simply to do whatever they can to see to it a different candidate doesn't get elected.

The Romney Christmas card is one example. Or the push polls that plagued more than one million voters in South Carolina in 2008. These were created by Common Sense, Inc., a group that favors Republican Mike Huckabee. The automated phone polls called voters at home and asked them which candidate he or she supported. Following that was a "poll" question, actually a disguised endorsement for Huckabee and a slight against the voter's chosen candidate [source: NPR].

Candidate Huckabee quickly came under fire for the push polls, but threw his hands up in frustration. "Our campaign has nothing to do with push polling and I wish they would stop," said Mike Huckabee in a statement [source: Mike Huckabee.com]. But if the organization was for Huckabee, then why didn't he just call Common Sense, Inc. and tell them to cease and desist?

The answer is that by law, campaigns may have no contact with some kinds of special interest groups. Huckabee couldn't even send a note to the push pollers without running afoul of the law. This can put candidates in an awkward position, and with the advent of 527 groups, the headache can grow even larger.

These groups, named after the section of the U.S. tax code that give them leeway in raising and spending money on behalf of candidates, are also called independent interest groups. They may raise money and spend money in support of a campaign, but must remain separate from the campaign.

Perhaps the most famous special interest group is the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which during the campaign of 2004, actively challenged Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry's Vietnam service record through a smear campaign.

If 527 groups are such a nuisance, why don't we just outlaw them? "It's a question of free speech, really," wrote National Review editor Larry Kudlow in 2004. "No one should be prevented from expressing their views."

Despite their ability to play it fast and loose during elections, 527 groups walk a fine line. Their campaigns can generate criticism for the very candidates they aim to support. In 2004, George W. Bush was accused of collaborating with the Swift Boat Veterans, and Huckabee took flak for the push polling in 2008. And elections are one of those unique circumstances where there is such a thing as bad publicity.

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