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Where Were Interest Groups in 2008?

- January 15, 2009

bq. Interest groups represent the barking dog that didn’t bite in the 2008 presidential election.

So argues David Kimball (here). He notes that the amount of soft money from 527 and 501c groups declined from 2004 to 2008, as did non-party independent expenditures. He also suggests that interest groups had little ability to shape the issue agenda, as economic issues trumped the issues related to national security and moral values. He sees no real influence of interest groups on how people perceived Obama. For example, the belief that he is a Muslim didn’t become more prevalent as the campaign wore on, and in fact evaluations of Obama became more favorable on several dimensions. This all contrasts with 2004, the Swift Boat ads, etc., etc.

All of Kimball’s points “feel” right. They comport with how most observers would likely characterize this election. It does indeed seem like interest groups “mattered” less in 2008 than in 2004.

I’ll only note this. We really don’t have any good evidence that interest groups mattered in 2004 and than they didn’t matter in 2008. This lack of evidence regarding 2008 isn’t surprising: the data just isn’t available yet. But the lack of evidence regarding 2004 is surprising. Everyone “knows” that the Swift Boat ads — or at least the resulting media coverage that they generated — hurt Kerry. But I have yet to see definitive evidence, whereby, for example, Kerry’s poll standing is regressed on various measures of media content, including the prevalence of Swift Boat. I would not be surprised to find that Swift Boat mattered. Then again, there are lots of things that “everyone knows” were important, but, it turns out, don’t appear to have mattered much at all — e.g., the Daisy ad.

One other thought: the impact of interest groups may be relatively invisible, at least in terms of the kinds of data that Kimball looks at. One interesting finding in the new book by Sunshine Hillygus and Todd Shields (discussed here) is how much candidates, parties, and other actors target messages using direct mail and other similar forms of sotto voce communication. Thus, while in 2008 interest groups seemed quiet, that doesn’t mean they weren’t communicating with their members and sympathizers, communicating new information, reinforcing their views, and perhaps mobilizing them to participate. In fact, some of this communication could have affected the 2008 agenda by helping to make economic issues more salient. Although Kimball focuses on security and cultural issues, clearly those issues don’t monopolize the agenda of all interest groups (e.g., unions).

What effect did such activity have on the election’s outcome? Relatively little, is my guess. But interested scholars may still find more evidence of interest group activity by peering beneath the headlines.

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