Was ‘Understands’ Coordinated?
An anti-Romney ad might violate campaign-finance laws.

Joe Soptic, from a still of the “Understands” ad


Stephen M. Hoersting

The “Understands” ad, by Obama super PAC Priorities USA, insinuates that Mitt Romney is responsible for the death of the wife of former GST Steel employee Joe Soptic, five years before she died, simply because Soptic lost his job (and thus his health insurance) at a plant owned by Bain Capital.

Conventional wisdom has it that the ad is both despicable and false. The question to be answered is: Was it coordinated with either the Obama campaign or the Democratic National Committee?

Federal law typically treats a super-PAC ad coordinated with an official campaign or political party committee as an illegal in-kind contribution to the candidate or party committee. Civil penalties for making an in-kind contribution are warranted where there is “probable cause to believe” that coordination occurred.

Events surrounding the “Understands” ad should easily satisfy the probable-cause standard. But it’s not clear that the FEC will find a violation, or that conservatives would prefer an agency structured to do so.

Priorities USA’s actions alone meet the first requirement of an illegal in-kind contribution: The group paid for a communication that mentioned a presidential candidate within 120 days of the November 6 election. The next step is to determine whether someone at the campaign or the DNC suggested to someone at Priorities USA that a certain kind of ad would be advantageous to President Obama’s reelection, or transmitted material information to Priorities USA regarding the ad’s content, timing, or distribution. There is evidence for this as well.

Organizing for America is an arm of the DNC, and Stephanie Cutter is a deputy manager of the Obama campaign. On May 14 of this year, OFA and Ms. Cutter hosted a conference call in which Joe Soptic read to journalists a prepared statement recounting his wife’s travails and Mitt Romney’s supposed role in them. By August, the “Understands” ad featured Mr. Soptic telling, to the camera, nearly the exact story he relayed on Cutter’s conference call.

It is possible for any agent to illegally suggest an ad or transmit material information, up to and including Obama confidants David Axelrod and David Plouffe, who reportedly attended Priorities USA fundraising events earlier this year. An FEC advisory opinion permits attendance at super-PAC fundraisers but does not remove the fact of attendance from the scales of justice — i.e., the FEC may treat attendance as evidence of coordination.

Further, Joe Soptic has already appeared in three official Obama-campaign ads, and Stephanie Cutter has done a better job defending the “Understands” ad in the media than has Priorities USA co-founder Bill Burton.

There’s something else worth noting. In early answers about the Priorities USA ad, members of Team Obama followed a template that would later catch Cutter in a lie. On MSNBC’s Morning Joe, senior campaign adviser Robert Gibbs answered friendly questions from veteran reporters Mark Halperin and Sam Stein. Halperin wanted to know Gibbs’s opinion about the propriety of an ad “basically making the accusation that Governor Romney was responsible for that woman’s death.” Gibbs remained calm and answered slowly, distancing the campaign from responsibility for the ad but not from its message: “Look, Mark, I think, as you said, this is an ad by an entity that is not controlled by the campaign,” and “I certainly don’t know the specifics of this man’s case,” but “we know [that] when people lose their jobs they tend to lose their health care.” Gibbs’s denigration of Romney’ s actions at Bain grew even stronger after a follow-up question from Sam Stein.


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