GUY RAZ, HOST:
Let's turn now to politics and superPACs, those outside political groups that could spend a billion dollars by November. Reporter Robert Draper recently wrote about how conservative-leaning superPACs are paving the way. We asked him just how far ahead the Republican groups are.
ROBERT DRAPER: Well ahead of the Democrats. What they project is that they will be raising about $800 million. By contrast, Priorities USA, the pro-Obama superPAC, hopes to raise, pledges to raise $100 million.
RAZ: Now, the best-known superPAC is American Crossroads, the one founded by Republican operative Karl Rove. Robert Draper was curious to find out more about the biggest pro-Democrat group. It's called Priorities USA, and it was founded by a former White House staffer named Bill Burton.
DRAPER: Priorities USA is a superPAC formed by Bill Burton as well as Rahm Emanuel's right-hand man for many years, Sean Sweeney. Sweeney and Burton are best friends, and they both left the White House about the same time in February of 2011. Sweeney left because Rahm Emanuel was running for mayor. Burton left because he had tried to succeed Robert Gibbs and become press secretary of the White House, did not win in that contest.
And though others at the White House wanted him to stick around, he decided to try something new. At that point in time, fully a year after the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, a number of superPACs had cropped up as a direct result of that decision, but none on the Democratic side. And concern was mounting in a lot of corners that this sort of unilateral disarmament that had, in large part, been promulgated by President Obama, who had such an expressed distaste for these superPACs, was going to have major consequences in the 2012 election.
So Burton and Sweeney figured this was a void they would fill and were not deterred by the fact that they'd never done anything like this before, that these guys were messaging and campaigning strategy guys, not guys that went around raising money from rich people.
RAZ: Democrats have been accused of taking a fairly sanctimonious position when it comes to unlimited unregulated money in politics, but is that all done with a bit of a wink and a nod? Do you think that really the White House is just delighted about this?
DRAPER: They're delighted now, but they honestly were not before. I mean, Obama had staked out a position that these superPACs were bad, and I think he read - correctly, for the most part - that a lot of Democrats would feel that way. But by December of 2011, when the gross disparity between what the Republicans were raising in terms of superPAC monies and what Priorities USA was raising, when that became apparent to the Obama campaign, then the campaign manager Jim Messina showed those numbers to fellow adviser David Axelrod, who said we've got to take this to the president. It was at that time that Obama finally said, we're not going to unilaterally disarm, and go forth and prosper, Priorities USA.
RAZ: You paint a picture of Bill Burton. He is a combative - a nice guy, but he likes to fight. What is his game plan? What is their strategy to fight Mitt Romney?
DRAPER: Given that they can't match the Republicans dollar-for-dollar, what they believe they've got to do, the only way that they can be helpful in the attempt to re-elect Barack Obama is to frame Romney in a very negative light, to basically tell a story of Romney that would repel voters from him. What they came across or what they decided sort of after a bit of trial and error was a narrative based on Romney's time at Bain Capital, the private equity group.
And their thinking behind this is not just that all these people who were laid off by - as a result of certain acquisitions of companies by Bain, but it was even more effective as a means of explaining who Mitt Romney is because Romney's message he's been telling people over and over is, I understand how the economy works.
RAZ: I'm a business man.
DRAPER: Right. I'm a business man. I understand how the economy works. And the rejoinder in these ads that Priorities USA has put out is implicitly that he does know how the economy works, but he's only interested in making it work for rich guys like himself.
RAZ: Is there any evidence that these ads so far have been effective?
DRAPER: Yes. Yeah, not anecdotal. There's pretty hard statistical evidence that both sides have seen that in swing states and amongst independent voters - and these are, in fact, you know, the very places and the very groups the Priorities happens to be targeting since they don't have a whole lot of money and have to be very precise in their targeting - that Romney's unfavorables have gone up.
And those people who've been polled and have been interviewed about this have, in fact, cited, well, it's terrible what he did, laying off, you know, these people. And so, yeah, it's clear that it's having an effect now. Will it ultimately have that much of an effect? Will they manage to turn that many voters, especially given that in the fall, these hundreds of millions of dollars from the Republican side will be unleashed in terms of negative attacks on Obama? Will their ability to shake up swing voters in these particularly targeted areas make much of a difference? We'll have to see.
RAZ: That's Robert Draper. His article on the superPAC race can be found in tomorrow's issue of The New York Times magazine. Robert, thanks so much.
DRAPER: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.