In N.H., Pro-Fiorina Super PAC Tests Boundaries in Campaign Ground Game

Sep 4, 2015

It’s a familiar scene: Carly Fiorina’s presidential campaign has a meet and greet at a lumber yard in Wentworth. Nitsa Ioannides and Kerry Marsh stand behind a table, greeting guests.  Ionnides hands you a red CARLY For America sticker and a brochure; Marsh might recommend a yard sign.

You might think these women work for Fiorina’s campaign – known as 'Carly For President.'  

You’d be wrong. They work for 'CARLY for America,' the pro-Fiorina Super PAC.

Super PACs are playing a bigger role in presidential politics this year than ever before. These fundraising vehicles can raise and spend as much money as they want, as long as they don’t coordinate with the candidate they’re backing.

On the ground here in New Hampshire, Fiorina’s Super PAC is pushing the limits of what these groups can do. In fact, that day in Wentworth, Fiorina -- a Republican -- and most of her staffers didn’t show up until after Fiorina’s talk was scheduled to begin.

A staffer from Fiorina's super PAC mans the sign-in table at a Laconia N.H. campaign event
Credit Emily Corwin for NHPR

Leslie Shedd, the press secretary for Fiorina’s Super PAC, was there early. “What we do is focus a lot on- essentially, the ground game,” she says.

At events, the Super PAC often brings as many staffers as the campaign itself. They recruit supporters and endorsements. They keep track of event attendees and distribute yard signs.  Shedd says there’s one thing they definitely don’t do.

“No,” she says, “we don’t communicate with the campaign.”

It’s like planning a wedding - without being allowed to talk to the bride or groom.

Super PACs rose in the wake of a 2010 Supreme Court decision that loosened restrictions on campaign finance. The court declared that people and corporations could donate unlimited sums to independent groups. The catch is, they can’t coordinate or contribute directly with candidates’ campaigns.

So far, other Super PACs spend money safely from the sidelines, pouring millions and millions into TV advertising. In New Hampshire, Fiorina’s Super PAC is taking a different approach, however.

It's like planning a wedding - without being allowed to talk to the bride or groom.

Ray La Raja, associate professor of political science at Boston University, says Super PACs can fill a gap for candidates who face better-funded opponents.

“She’s not like the ideologues on the right and left, like Ted Cruz from Texas who gets a lot of passionate small donors," La Raja said. "So she relies on her wealth and her friends who are wealthy.”

In fact, a handful of finance CEOs in California and New York did get Fiorina’s Super PAC off to a nice start, each writing $100,000 checks.  Not to mention the $1 million from Jerry Perenchio, former CEO of Univision.

Neither Fiorina's Super PAC nor her campaign is willing to talk much about how they get around without communicating. According to Shedd, however, the Super PAC waits for the campaign to publish a press release with the information they need. 

“Once an event is public, and the campaign sends it out,” she says, “then we do our best to help fill the bleachers.”

And so - on the ground -- staffers from Carly for President and staffers from 'CARLY for America' engage in a sort of silent tango.

Credit Emily Corwin for NHPR

For instance, during a campaign swing earlier this summer, Fiorina stopped by a popular Portsmouth café between events. While she ate lunch, three Super PAC staffers took turns keeping an eye on the candidate. If all three stepped out for lunch or phone calls, they’d have no way to know when Fiorina was finished, or where she was heading next.

La Raja calls this kind of maneuvering "extraordinary." 

“They’re trying to read each others’ signals without being overt,” he says, “and so she in that sense is on the cutting edge in this presidential campaign, because she really can’t cross that line.”

Overall, the strategy of using Super PAC dollars to pay for things usually managed by a campaign appears to be working just fine. As Fiorina reminds supporters, “We started this campaign literally from a standing start. We didn’t have a full campaign staff, we didn’t have email lists, donors, we didn’t have years of fundraising.”

Now, as Fiorina gears up for yet another weekend campaigning in New Hampshire -- with a well-oiled Super PAC behind her – those lean days seem long gone.