On the eve of President Barack Obama’s inauguration has been a quiet move to extend his campaign apparatus in the form of a social media Crossroads GPS-like group.
The Los Angeles Times first picked up on the story on Thursday, followed by Politico. President Obama confirmed the move on Friday, which comes in the form of setting up a 501(c)(4) nonprofit called Organizing for Action.
The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010 allows corporations to donate unlimited sums of money to such groups, without their names being made public. On Friday, a White House source told BuzzFeed that Organizing for Action will voluntarily disclose the names of its donors.
Ironically, such 501(c)(4) groups were criticized by the Obama campaign during the 2012 election season, even though there was one group associated with the Obama camp.
The efforts of bigger 501(c)(4) groups like Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS were more effective at raising large amounts of money–and received heavy criticism from Democrats.
But in the end, President Obama’s social media/marketing machine, based in Chicago, was more effective at spending money and getting out the vote against GOP contender Mitt Romney.
So now, the remnants of that machine will become Organizing for Action and its leadership group will reportedly include such Obama heavy-hitters as Jim Messina (the Obama re-election campaign’s manager), Stephanie Cutter, Robert Gibbs, and David Plouffe.
Vice President Joe Biden dropped hints last week the group will tackle gun control as its first issue.
And when it comes to Organizing for Action, its advocacy of issues will be key to maintaining its nonprofit status.
The primary purpose of a 501(c)(4) group is to engage in the “promotion of social welfare.” That would include TV ads and social media campaigns about gun control, immigration, or other issues, but not ones targeting politicians or elections.
The PBS series Frontline has a good explanation about how a 501(c)(4) group can be used by smart political operators. It explains that much like George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television,” there are eight words or phrases that a 501(c)(4) can’t use in an ad.
By avoiding the words which are directly related to election campaigns, a group like Organizing for Action can run as many TV and social media campaigns as it can afford (or sees fit to run without annoying too many people).
In an email on Friday to supporters obtained by Politico, President Obama laid out the issues that Organizing for Action will address.
“We’ve got to keep working on growing the economy from the middle out, along with making meaningful progress on the issues we care about — immigration reform, climate change, balanced deficit reduction, reducing gun violence, and the implementation of the Affordable Care Act,” President Obama said.
There were already reports about two weeks after President Obama’s re-election that an Internet marketing system called Narwhal, used during the campaign, would be used to shape the public debate over the upcoming fiscal cliff negotiations.
Messina spoke at a conference hosted by Politico and described Obama for America, the operation that included Narwhal, a Dashboard program, a team of programmers, and 32,000 volunteers.
“It would be very easy for supporters today to go and start asking people to call members of Congress. … I am sure you will see our supporters start doing that,” Messina said in November.
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One mobile marketing expert estimated that Narwhal and its related systems cost $100 million to build and had information on 175 million voters.
If Organizing for Action continues in the mold of the Obama for America, it will likely need the significant funding afforded to a 501(c)(4) group to maintain the technology behind the organization and operatives in neighborhoods to advocate for issues.
And for starters, Organizing for Action will be taking on the National Rifle Association in the battle over gun-control legislation.
But Organizing for Action is already receiving criticism from the left about its potential to raise large amounts of money without full disclosure, and its apparently conflicting role with the Democratic National Committee.
Technically, Organizing for Action would raise and spend money to advocate issues, while the DNC would raise money to directly run election campaigns.
But as the 2012 election showed, there is a lot of overlap between the two concepts, especially when it comes to leveraging an email database with 175 million names currently in the possession of Organizing for Action.
Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.