The Wall Street Journal’s Washington Wire Blog

Sharing Data on Twitter Raises Campaign-Finance Questions

By: Rebecca Ballhaus and Patrick O’Connor

The reported use of Twitter accounts to quietly communicate polling information between political allies has raised new questions about how outside groups are sharing information with candidates and their political parties, activities that are regulated by campaign finance law.

The issue was thrust into the spotlight Monday after CNN reported that the House Republicans’ campaign arm and two of the biggest outside groups that support GOP candidates – American Action Network and American Crossroads – used anonymous Twitter accounts to share internal polling data, citing a source with knowledge of the activities.  The Twitter accounts that broadcast the poll data during the 2014 cycle had such names as brunogianelli44 – named after a character on the TV show “The West Wing” – and broadcast in extreme shorthand, with one tweet on polling data in a California House race reading “CA-40/43-44/49-44/44-50/36-44/49-10/16/14-52–>49/476-10s,” according to the CNN story.

The Twitter accounts, which couldn’t be easily linked back to their authors, were deleted shortly after CNN contacted the groups about their existence, CNN said.

The House GOP fundraising arm–the National Republican Congressional Committee–and the two groups declined to comment on the CNN report.

Both American Action Network and American Crossroads are staffed heavily by former campaign aides to the NRCC and tend to complement the party’s official political activity by running campaign ads in weeks when the party is dark. House Majority PAC occupies a similar role for the Democrats.

Campaign-finance laws prohibit these groups that collect limitless sums, called super PACs, from coordinating directly with individual campaigns or the party committees supporting them. As a result, Republican and Democratic groups have devised a series of workarounds to publicly communicate polling and strategy, using press releases, Web videos and other means.

Whether the groups’ reported actions could be illegal depends on two factors, said Kenneth Gross, the former head of the Federal Election Commission’s enforcement division. The first is whether the groups exchanged a decoder in order to understand the tweets. “The real thing that’s a problem is if there’s some sort of prearrangement,” he said. “If you put gibberish out on the street, that in and of itself is not a problem—if someone can figure it out.”

The second question, Mr. Gross said, is whether publishing data in a public forum, but through an obscure account, counts as public information. “That’s a question that would have to be addressed,” he said.

Sharing nonpublic polling data with another committee is generally treated as a contribution, said Jan Baran, a campaign-finance lawyer with Wiley Rein. The sharing of information via Twitter accounts, therefore, could be considered as a contribution from a super PAC to a party committee, which the FEC prohibits. The groups could also run into trouble for having failed to report the exchange as a contribution on their filings.

Several campaign-finance watchdog organizations said they were in the process of deciding whether to file a complaint with the FEC. The agency doesn’t make complaints public until they have been resolved. “This is just one more example of how political operatives game the campaign-finance laws because they count on a dysfunctional Federal Election Commission not enforcing the laws,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a nonprofit aiming to remove the influence of money in politics. He said his group is considering filing a complaint.

FEC vice-chair Ann Ravel, a Democrat, tweeted Monday morning that “tech [is] changing politics” and called rules for coordinating “sadly murky.” Ms. Ravel didn’t offer further explanation of her tweet, and commissioners are not permitted to comment on the specifics of cases where they may issue a ruling.

David Mitrani, a Democratic campaign-finance lawyer, said he expects several complaints to be filed. “This arrangement is incredibly risky,” he said. “It really pushes the boundaries of the law, and it violates the spirit of the law.”

But Caroline Hunter, a Republican FEC commissioner, defended the existing coordination rules. She said: “The FEC’s long standing position is that the use of publicly available information does not implicate the coordination rules,” adding: “Every change in technology should not be viewed as an opportunity for more regulation.”

Because candidates and the parties can’t coordinate directly with these outside groups, the campaigns and party committees have developed specialized websites to publicize background research on their opponents, footage of both candidates that can be used in campaign ads and, in some cases, potential commercial scripts.

In the past, Republicans and Democrats in the House created specialized websites for individual candidates that included a series of one-sentence attacks on their opponents, perfect fodder for campaign commercials.

Earlier this year, the campaign team of Sen. Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) released nearly three minutes of footage of the candidate smiling at the camera and shaking hands with voters—prime fodder for outside groups airing ads on his behalf. Senate Republicans criticized Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D., N.H.) earlier this year for posting what read like a commercial script on a page on her website that wasn’t linked to on the main site.

The two sides give information to news outlets or issue press releases to broadcast their intent—for example, House Republicans’ campaign arm issues a list of vulnerable incumbents every cycle to highlight which candidates need the most outside help. In a similar vein, the two parties reserve advertising time much earlier than they used to, which helps outside groups know when their air support will be necessary to complement whatever the party is doing.