Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University News Bureau

1998-1999 index

Distributed October 2, 1998
Contact: Kristen Lans

"The Sound of Money"

Pollsters tell how interest groups take to airwaves to shape public policy

In their new book, The Sound of Money: How Political Interests Get What They Want, political scientists Darrell M. West and Burdett A. Loomis probe how special-interest spending on communication campaigns shapes public policy.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- The corridors of Congress have never been the only stage for public policy debates, but they may no longer be the main stage. Special-interest groups now use multimillion-dollar communications campaigns to broadcast their messages and shape discussion before a policy goes up for a vote, say the authors of a new book.

The Sound of Money: How Political Interests Get What They Want looks at how the emerging trend toward special-interest communications campaigns impacted four public policy debates in the last decade and what it means for the future.

Darrell M. West, professor of political science and director of the John Hazen White Sr. Public Opinion Laboratory at Brown University, and Burdett A. Loomis, professor of political science at the University of Kansas, collaborated on the book.

The Sound of Money is based on dozens of interviews with communications professionals, lobbyists, journalists and former members of the Clinton administration. It examines how special-interest groups influenced the fate of the Clinton health care proposal, the Contract with America, telecommunications deregulation and Medicare reform.

Although organized interests in American politics have been a force to be reckoned with during the last 30 years, special-interest groups began to wield sophisticated high-tech mass communication tools and strategies only in this decade.

The key to power is generating and repeating a consistent set of attractive, coherent messages, the authors write. To develop their messages, special-interest organizations conduct focus groups and commission polls. They spread their messages through advertising, direct mail and phone bank campaigns, and the Internet.

The Clinton health care reform proposal was defeated when the president lost control of the issue to opposing voices who "lobbied as effectively on the airwaves as on Capitol Hill," the authors write. Those who opposed the proposal outspent supporters with paid advertising by a 2-1 ratio.

Communications maneuvers are often orchestrated behind the scenes to evade oversight by the press and public. Stealth campaigns - those in which corporations funnel money through nonprofit groups that need not list their contributors - have been increasing, say the authors.

"We worry that the little guy is getting squeezed out," West said. Those whose voices were lost in the health care reform discussion were the estimated 41 million uninsured Americans.

What's to be done? There are three major options, the authors say: Do nothing; broaden disclosure on the part of interest groups; or increase regulation of group advocacy. One thing is certain: Only by staying attentive to new high-tech communications "can we protect the gritty, day-to-day give-and-take that constitutes American democracy," the authors write.

West is a frequent commentator on media, voting behavior and elections. He also looked at political communications tactics in his 1993 book Air Wars: Television Advertising in Election Campaigns, 1952-1992. In addition, he has conducted numerous polls during the past decade and has studied the factors that influence public opinion. His most recent poll, Sept. 19-20, 1998, surveyed public opinion on Rhode Island races for governor and attorney general and on impeachment, resignation or censure options for Clinton.

A faculty member at Brown University since 1982, West received his master's degree and doctorate in political science from Indiana University and a bachelor's degree from Miami University of Ohio. Loomis is director of the Robert J. Dole Institute for Public Service at the University of Kansas.

Editors: West may be reached at (401) 863-1163; Loomis at (785) 864-9033.