A field guide to spotting fake issue groups

It used to be simple to determine a political group’s goals, and there was a bright, well-defined line between groups that advocated for certain issues and purely partisan groups. Often, the group’s goals were right in the name.

Now, though, things have changed. A plethora of organizations claim to be devoted to one cause or another, but in fact they often have one goal: electing politicians of a certain party. They mask this by pretending to be advocates, but with some close examination, their real motives become obvious.

As election season heats up, we’ll see ads and receive mail from a range of groups we’ve never heard of. How do we determine the difference between true advocates and partisans? There are a couple different factors, but they all boil down to one thing: bipartisanship. If a group’s true priority is advancing its issues, it will work with members of both parties. The National Rifle Association, for example, works with and campaigns for Democrats who believe in gun rights; Planned Parenthood similarly reaches out to pro-choice Republicans. This inevitably frustrates their partisan supporters, but it is both honest and effective.

However, if a group never — or incredibly rarely — endorses anyone in one particular party, no matter where they stand on the issues, that can be a red flag that the group is truly a partisan one. Similarly, if the group never criticizes members of one party, even when they go against their issues, that’s telling. A group that truly advocates for an issue will work with or against a politician based on his or her record, not political party.

Another telling indication of partisanship is legislative ratings. Many organizations rate legislators, supposedly on how well they agree with their issues. Groups that are merely partisan fronts will have highly polarized ratings — for example, almost all Democrats getting 10 percent or less, and all Republicans getting 90 percent or more. Of course, though it’s rare, an issue may be truly partisan, so it’s not fair to judge based on that alone; this is just one indicator.

These groups also tend not to indicate which particular votes will be counting toward their rating ahead of time, but instead tally up the scores after a legislative session has concluded. This lack of transparency prevents legislators from considering that as a factor at the time of a vote. It allows the group to rig its scoring system after the fact to the advantage of one party or another if it so chooses. They also may consider other, more vague factors in determining their ratings than just votes; this allows for further manipulation.

If a group has an overly broad focus, that may also be an indication that they were created to assist one party rather than advance the issues. Requiring legislators to agree with your positions in many different areas makes it less likely that anyone from the other party will meet the criteria. It also allows the group to shift their emphasis as issues rise or fall in prominence, or even to abandon causes entirely if need be.

Any one of the above factors applying doesn’t necessarily make an organization partisan, but hitting all of them probably does. In medicine, an unlikely, exotic diagnosis instead of a common one is called a zebra, drawing upon the analogy that if one hears hooves, you’d assume it was a horse, rather than a zebra. A true issue advocacy group that operates in an overwhelmingly partisan fashion is a zebra. The likelier explanation for any group behaving in a completely partisan fashion is that they’re merely a partisan front, an appendage to a certain party.

It’s sad that we’ve reached the point where it’s necessary to do detective work to determine a group’s motives, but that’s the point politics has sunk to today — and until major reforms are made, it’s likely to only get worse.

Jim Fossel

About Jim Fossel

Originally from Alna, Jim Fossel has volunteered with a number of campaigns over the years, including for Peter Mills for Governor in 2006. He previously worked for U.S. Senator Susan Collins and House Republican Leader Josh Tardy.