Independent 527 Ads -- Deluge Ahead

Independent political activist groups, known as 527s for the tax code provision that governs them, are gaining ground.

Independent political activist groups, known as 527s for the tax code provision that governs them, are gaining ground. They're more numerous, wealthier, more organized and electronically savvier. And they are about to pounce on the body politic, unleashing a torrent of mostly negative ads to influence the presidential election. Keep your mute button near.

527s are required to work independently and without direct coordination from the presidential, Senate and House candidates they seek to help. Most of their ad buys will be aimed at the presidential election.

What's unsettling is there is no accountability for content, context or accuracy. The ads are hard-edged and often accusatory -- attacking character and judgment, and you have to look or listen closely to see which group is financing the ad. Even then, the name may tell you very little about the group.

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Both Barack Obama and John McCain are urging supporters not to donate to 527s, but it's out of their control. Wealthy donors can bankroll independent groups or click and donate websites. And the 527s market themselves through huge e-mail blasts and standard mail.

We're seeing some general-election ads already. has this spot running on cable about a young mother saying John McCain can't have her newborn baby for a 100-year war in Iraq. The ad doesn't mention that military service is voluntary and something the young baby would presumably decide as a young man, not McCain. Nor does it mention that McCain supports a long military presence in Iraq, but not a long combat role.

A conservative 527 called Freedom Watch has an ad out attacking Democrats in Congress for doing nothing to reduce gas prices. That may be true, but the Bush White House hasn't done anything, either, largely because there's little that Washington can do in the near-term., an anti-Iraq war independent group, is planning to use veterans and former generals to attack McCain's Iraq policy. We'll have to judge the content and quality when they appear.

Look for clips of Rev. Jeremiah Wright morphing into Obama from independent groups. And maybe computer-generated K St. lobbyists swarming around McCain. A field day.

The frequency of independent ads will become much greater in August, September and October. The amount of money to be spent is unknown because 527s don't need to disclose their financing. Estimates from nonpartisan groups that study campaign finance estimate $300 million or more. That's in the range of what the McCain and Obama campaigns will spend themselves.

Perhaps it's good in the end. More voices rather than fewer informing an electorate. The lingering question, though will be whther they are really informing the voter or steering them with half truths and bombast.

Richard Sammon
Senior Associate Editor, The Kiplinger Letter