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Electronic advocacy: interest groups and public policy making.

Political advertising by interest groups attempting to influence public policy has proliferated in recent years. Formerly the preserve of election campaigns, advertising has spread to nonelectoral arenas, such as policy debates about abortion, international trade, health care, tort reform, and Medicare. Despite this explosion of advocacy advertising, scholars have made little effort to study high-tech lobbying tools, such as television advertising and organized direct mail or phone bank efforts (for an exception, see Sexton and Loomis 1994). Lacking, too, are normative considerations of the impact of electronic advocacy on pluralistic democracy. High-tech lobbying tools are expensive, and lobbying strategies based on these models are not equally available to all groups. Given the costs of electronic advocacy, we address whether the heavenly chorus of interest groups is singing with an upper-class bias (Schattschneider 1960).

The Explosion of Advocacy Advertising

With the success of advertising in American electoral campaigns (West 1993), it is little surprise that interest groups have extended the use of ads to nonelectoral arenas. Right-to-life organizations ran ads in 1992 and thereafter, emphasizing the sanctity of life and nonabortion alternatives to unwanted pregnancies. The acrimonious 1993 debate over the ratification of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) generated extensive advertising campaigns from competing forces.

But neither of these policy ad campaigns was successful. In the case of abortion ads, the amount of money spent was not sufficient to guarantee much visibility. The NAFTA ads meanwhile addressed an issue that was not particularly salient with voters. Interest groups running ads on these topics were not able to generate news coverage that was extensive or favorable.

The general ineffectiveness of past advocacy advertising has led some observers to conclude that these types of ads never will be influential. Previous studies have suggested that interest groups that run ads have clear partisan objectives and are not seen as legitimate by reporters, legislators, or the public. In addition, research has shown that advocacy advertising is uncertain because the ultimate object is decision makers, not the general public, although groups may have a secondary interest in mobilizing public opinion in order to put grassroots pressure on legislators. Few interest groups have the financial resources to spend enough on advertising to get taken seriously by policymakers.

Past failures in regard to advocacy advertising, however, do not prove that electronic lobbying strategies are doomed to failure. We argue that the conventional wisdom regarding the ineffectiveness of advocacy ads is in serious need of reconsideration. Changes in the news media have increased the risks of traditional public relations strategies based on managing the free media. Reliance on journalists to fight policy battles is risky; reporters have become professional skeptics who cannot be counted on to convey a group's perspective. News coverage does not always occur at the time necessary to further group objectives.

For these reasons, many groups have turned to political advertising to communicate particular policy frames. The major strength of advertising is that the content and timing of ads is group-controlled. This gives ad-based strategies substantial advantages over other forms of political communications that are journalist controlled. Interest groups have discovered what political candidates have known for several decades, that ads are the most dependable means of conveying political messages.

The Case of Health Care Reform

The debate over President Bill Clinton's health care package illustrates the power of advocacy advertising. The fight over that issue unleashed a tidal wave of interest-group spending (see West, Heith, and Goodwin 1996 for details). A nonprofit Washington research organization, the Center for Public Integrity, estimated that at least $100 million was spent overall in 1993 and 1994 by organizations attempting to influence the health policy debate. Some of the money was devoted to traditional lobbying tactics, such as hiring law firms, giving campaign contributions, or providing free trips to members of Congress for "educational" meetings.

But the biggest single share of total lobbying expenditures came in the area of political advertising. An estimated $60 million, or more than half of the overall spending, was devoted to advertising. Among the biggest advertisers on health care was the Health Insurance Association of America (HIAA), which represented small- and medium-sized insurance companies. The HIAA spent roughly $14 million, much of it on the famous "Harry and Louise" series of ads. Other organizations, such as the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and Republican National Committee (RNC), lagged far behind in their ad budgets. Groups opposed to the Clinton program outspent those that favored it by a more than 2-to-1 margin in the advertising area.

In one early HIAA health care ad, a young couple named Harry and Louise are sitting over breakfast (see description by Kolbert 1993). After reading the president's plan, Louise complains about a national limit on health care and government caps on how much the country can spend on health care. The "Harry and Louise" series of spots generated extensive coverage from the news media and 300,000 calls to an HIAA toll-free number between September 1993 and April 1994. Between January 15 and July 12, 324 seconds of network evening news time was devoted to HIAA ads, compared to 122 seconds for those of the DNC (Jamieson 1994, 18). Almost every leading newspaper and television network in the country ran stories about the ads, including a front page story in the New York Times on October 21, 1993.

Early polls showed strong support for the Clinton health care initiative, although the public was cautious and uncertain about the president's plan. For example, a Washington Post/ABC News poll of adults nationwide conducted shortly after the Clinton program was announced in September 1993 revealed that 67% of respondents approved of the president's program and 20% disapproved. But by late February 1994, the same survey organization using an identical question found that approval of Clinton's plan had declined 23 percentage points.

In interviews conducted for this case study, public officials and lobbyists credited the HIAA spots with turning public opinion against the Clinton proposal (see West, Heith, and Goodwin 1996). White House health care advisor Magaziner said the ads "scared a lot of people by putting out misinformation" (Magaziner 1994). Reporters also regularly credited the Harry and Louise spots "with undermining public confidence" in the Clinton plan and doing "more than any single lobbying tactic to hobble Clinton's plan." For example, a June 20, 1994, network story by John Cochran of ABC News blamed Harry and Louise for "creating real doubts" about the Clinton program.

As a further sign of the potency of the advertisements, the summer of 1994 featured the unprecedented spectacle of Dan Rostenkowski, House Ways and Means Committee chair, reaching an agreement with HIAA in which Rostenkowski agreed to changes in health care legislation in exchange for the HIAA not running ads in particular states. Within weeks, though, this pact came unglued when a felony indictment forced Rostenkowski to relinquish his committee leadership.

Ironically, the very visibility of the health care debate should have reduced group influence. According to Lowi (1969) and Hayes (1981), the more visible the policy arena, the less able groups are to exercise influence over the general public. Yet in the case of health care, the media coverage amplified the messages of certain groups, which then helped these groups generate opposition to key features of the president's program.

The Contract With America

With their successful experience in blocking health care reform, Republicans recognized immediately after their 1994 takeover of Congress that they needed an effective communications strategy to promote their agenda based on the Contract With America. Many outside interest groups and communications consultants had been aligned with House Republican leaders during the campaign and shared their fundamental ideological goals. It was natural for House leaders after the election to turn to these outside groups for research, publicity, and financial resources (see West and Francis 1995).

Groups sympathetic to Contract goals were brought into the bill-writing process and given unprecedented access. According to Keith Appel, an outside media consultant for the Contract, "small business groups like the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB) and the National Restaurant Association hooked up with the Christian Coalition and the Family Research Council to lobby to get [bills] passed" (May 10, 1995, interview). Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform described the discussions as "weekly meetings [Congressman John] Boehner held with business groups, taxpayer groups, and the Christian Coalition. We just sat down and said here is where the legislation is and who can help call their members in certain districts and get the word out on what is happening and help publicize the fight" (May 18, 1995, interview).

A variety of tactics were used to build support for the Contract. This included activities ranging from broadcasting ads, running phone banks, and sending direct mail, all under the slogan of "Saving Our Future." Each company and group involved in the working groups contributed money to pay for research, phone banks, ads, and direct mail. One of the more active outside groups was the Christian Coalition. Using its 1.6 million members and $25 million annual budget, the Coalition devoted one million dollars to promoting the Contract via ads, phone banks, and direct mail.

Much of the effort devoted to promoting the Contract was financed by outside groups who had participated in the formulation of the Contract. Barry Jackson, director of the Contract With America office at the Republican National Committee said "so many things were moving quickly, that we needed a way to manage the communications process. This is where outside groups helped" (May 22, 1995, interview). Appel set up the "Contract Information Center," which was completely funded by a private Republican contributor named Fred Sacher, a real estate developer from California who was a long-time contributor to Gingrich and other causes such as the Nicaraguan contras. According to Appel, "Fred Sacher hired us but we never would have done this without the blessing of Newt's office, Armey's office, and the RNC. They knew it was necessary to augment the communications approach from within the Beltway" (May 10, 1995, interview).

Because the public relations effort went through a private individual rather than the party or leadership offices, no disclosure of spending was required. The Contract Information Center never disclosed its total spending or the manner in which money was spent. This tactic was perfectly legal because the effort was privately financed, and the Federal Election Commission only regulates political spending specifically related to election campaigns.

By the end of the first 100 days of the 104th Congress, this strategy had borne fruit. Nine of the 10 planks of the Contract With America had passed the U.S. House of Representatives (the only exception being the term-limit plank opposed by many members of Congress).

The Case of Tort Reform

Perhaps no plank of the Contract illustrates the current policy-making system better than tort reform. Along with the tax cut, this policy area was the most sensitive plank of the Contract. It was delicate politically for two reasons. First, the working group supporting tort reform felt strongly that "the legal system was out of control, that we needed to cap punitive damages, that it was too easy to sue, and that small businesses were being hurt by all these lawsuits" (May 12, 1995, interview with Christie Carson, staff aide to Representative John Boehner).

Second, policy reform in this area involved well-organized and well-financed opponents, namely trial lawyers. Gingrich aide Leigh Ann Metzger explained that "trial lawyers are strong because of money, voice, and campaign contributions" and that Republican leaders had been warned "the trial lawyers were going to spend $20 million against us on tort reform" (May 26, 1995, interview).

Indeed, conflict between trial lawyers, doctors and hospitals, and insurance companies was one of the reasons why Clinton's health care reform initiative had failed in 1994. The complex nature of political conflict in this area led House Republicans to conclude they would "have the biggest problem on tort reform" (May 26, 1995, interview with Metzger). As a result, their lobbying effort was "more structured and took on a clearer identity than on some of the other planks. . . . we were going to need to put all of our resources together."

Ben Goddard, creator of the famed "Harry and Louise" health care ads, was hired by an ad hoc coalition of small business groups, such as NFIB, the Chamber of Commerce, and Citizens for a Sound Economy, to develop ads that would push legal reform. About $2 million was spent on television ads in Washington in March 1995 during the crucial time of consideration by the House of Representatives.

Initially, the issues of concern to Goddard's coalition were not represented in the Contract. According to Goddard, "one set of our clients [the Federation of American Health Systems, the American Hospital Association, and the American Medical Association] was interested in medical malpractice and the other [the American Council of Life Insurance and various small business groups] was interested in punitive damage limits. . . . The only thing in the Contract was product liability reform. To some degree, particularly in the early days, we had a somewhat antagonistic relationship to the House leadership group because we were asking for the bill to be expanded beyond what the Contract called for" (May 17, 1995, interview).

Expanding the Contract on tort reform was a big request on the part of outside groups. Issue expansion was unusual on the Contract. In fact, no other plank witnessed a significant broadening beyond its original formulation. The reason was clear. According to Metzger, "we tried to stay narrower on many planks because we were cognizant of what you could actually do in 100 days. The narrower the legislation, the better the chance you were going to stick to a schedule and get it done. You also were minimizing areas of controversy. People had signed the dotted line on what the Contract would do. Christmas treeing it, or adding a lot of other things to it, would be bad" (May 26, 1995, interview).

But in a development that reveals much about the power of electronic advocacy, medical malpractice reform and punitive damage limits were brought into the legislation at the last minute and ultimately passed the House of Representatives. When asked why medical malpractice was added, Jackson explained that "medical malpractice originally was not in the Contract. The reason was we had to keep the scope narrow to make it doable. If we broadened the bill too much, it would be difficult to manage" (May 22, 1995, interview). The reason why it was added late, he said, was "medical malpractice is the defining issue with trial lawyers. It is a battle that has been coming for years. When facing the resources of trial lawyers and a sense that Congress could act on tort reform, we brought in medical malpractice. It was not brought in until the very end of the process, literally the week before it was voted on at the floor" (May 22, 1995, interview).

But interviews with key participants also make it clear that the resources of outside groups were one of the reasons why medical malpractice was added to tort reform. To take on a strong and well-funded opponent without sufficient resources on one's own side would be political suicide. Metzger noted, "We had a strong coalition. It seemed a viable vehicle to do something that we all cared about, which was medical malpractice reform. . . . It was in the spirit of what we wanted to do" (May 26, 1995, interview).

With a hint of pragmatism on the part of House Republican leaders, Metzger recognized that expanding the bill would bring access to much-needed outside resources. "There were people who would immediately benefit from the bill," she noted. By adding the medical malpractice issue to the Contract, Republican leaders would gain money for a television ad campaign. Cognizant of the sensitivity of dealings on tort reform, Metzger explained that the outside groups "didn't clear that sort of stuff with us because obviously that would be illegal. We weren't driving the outside effort. They would let us know this is what they cared about, and this was their position on it, and here is what they were going to be doing. They'd be doing telephone calls, visits, letters to the Hill, and targeted media to put some pressure on members" (May 26, 1995, interview).

Yet others interviewed for our project indicated that House leaders played a very active role in outside group efforts. When asked about the relationship between House Republican leaders and his own lobbying effort, Neil Cowan of Apco Associates (a Washington, D.C., media firm that handled much of the television advertising on tort reform) said, "we wanted to make sure what we were doing was consistent with what the House Republican leadership wanted. We coordinated things to make sure if we were doing advertising, that we ran ads in areas that lobbyists and legislators thought were particularly important. You only have so much money so you spend it in an appropriate way. We targeted the area where the legislators and lobbyists thought we needed additional support" (May 26, 1995, interview).

The Danger to Pluralistic Democracy

The rise of electronic advocacy shows how important outside money has become in driving national policy change. In each of the cases examined - health care, the Contract With America, and tort reform - interest groups spent millions of dollars on television ads, direct mail, phone banks, public opinion polls, and focus groups. Electronic advocacy has become a standard part of major policy-making debates.

On the surface, one might argue that big money and deep group penetration into legislative policy making by outside interests is no different than what Democrats have done for years with unions, liberal organizations, and minority groups. There is little question that while Democrats were in charge of Congress, these constituent groups had easy access to the policy process and that they reaped government benefits in return.

But several elements distinguish the current Republican situation from previous political eras. The relationship Democrats had with outside groups during their time in power was more permeable and open to a diverse range of groups than was true in the case of the Republican Contract With America. Indeed, the dominant academic model of this time period posited issue networks, with easy group access and permeable political relationships, as the most common relationship between interest groups and policymakers. In contrast, Republicans over the last two years have followed a much more selective course. Groups consulted have been narrow in scope, and access has been largely determined based on affinity with the ideological goals of new congressional leaders. The model looks less like an issue network, and more like a tightly structured, impermeable relationship.

As a sign of the tightness of group access, Republicans even went so far during the promotion of the Contract With America as to exclude some interests that should have been natural allies. For example, big businesses had limited access to House Republican leaders during the formulation and promotion of the Contract With America because these leaders did not trust large corporations to aggressively support their agenda. As House Majority Leader Dick Armey pointed out, big business executives were "prags . . . [who] go where the wind blows" (quoted in Berke 1995).

Finally, the current situation is different because the groups with whom Republicans have chosen to work are among the best organized and financed in the country. Many of the traditionally active Democratic groups represent the downtrodden and disenfranchised. These groups are not as well organized and do not have access to large financial warchests.

From a normative standpoint, the most troubling aspect of this development is the potential of high-tech lobbying campaigns to skew public policy making. Not all groups can afford the cost of electronic advocacy. Resource-rich groups are in a much stronger position to use these new communications technologies. With Republicans having gained majorities in the House and Senate, business groups have incentives to put their abundant financial resources at the disposal of the party in control of Congress. Unlike earlier eras in the post-World War II period, when conservative and business groups had to moderate their agenda because the party controlling Congress did not share their perspective, these groups now can use their money to push for full-blown policy changes. These organizations no longer have to use their money to buy access from a Democratic party that is ideologically distant from their own policy objectives.

Republican ability to deliver government benefits has created a political environment where well-organized and well-financed groups can do quite well in seeking policy benefits. In the case of the Contract With America, conservative business interests joined forces with Republican legislators and communications consultants to promote a legislative program with clear beneficiaries. Those who are organized and have big financial interests can gain disproportionate government benefits. All of this suggests that Schattschneider's (1960) fears about the interest group chorus singing with an upper-class bias are coming true.


Berke, Richard. 1995. "Republicans Spurning The Big-Business Label." New York Times, May 11, B11.

Hayes, Michael. 1981. Lobbyists and Legislators. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Jamieson, Kathleen Hall. 1994. "The Role of Advertising in the Health Care Reform Debate: Part One." University of Pennsylvania press release. July 18.

Kolbert, Elizabeth. 1993. "New Arena for Campaign Ads: Health Care." New York Times. October 21, A1.

Lowi, Theodore. 1979. The End of Liberalism. 2nd edition. New York: Norton.

Magaziner, Ira. 1994. "Straight Talk on Health Care Reform." Speech at Brown University. May 28.

Schattschneider, E. E. 1960. The Semi-Sovereign People. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Sexton, Eric, and Burdett Loomis. 1994. "Marketing as Advocacy: Advertising by Elites for Elites." Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association, Chicago.

West, Darrell M. 1993. Air Wars: Television Advertising in Election Campaigns, 1952-1992. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press.

West, Darrell M., and Richard Francis. 1995. "Selling the Contract With America." Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, August 31 to September 3, Chicago, Illinois.

West, Darrell M., Diane Heith, and Chris Goodwin. 1996. "Harry and Louise Go to Washington: Political Advertising and Health Care Reform." Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law. Forthcoming spring.

About the Authors

Darrell M. West is chairperson and professor of political science and director of the John Hazen White, Sr., Public Opinion Laboratory at Brown University. He is the author of Air Wars: Television Advertising in Election Campaigns, 1952-1992 (CQ Press 1993) and Cross Talk: Candidates, the Media and Voters in a Presidential Campaign (University of Chicago Press, forthcoming 1996) (coauthored with Marion Just, Ann Crigler, Dean Alger, Tim Cook, and Montague Kern).

Richard Francis is a political science graduate student in the Ph.D. program at Brown University.
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Author:West, Darrell M.; Francis, Richard
Publication:PS: Political Science & Politics
Date:Mar 1, 1996
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