Veterans of the Obama campaigns are launching a $75 million digital ad effort to counter President Donald Trump’s dominance of online advertising and viral misinformation.
Acronym, a “dark money” nonprofit, and its affiliated super PAC, Pacronym, plan to boost Democratic candidates and the party’s image in five 2020 battleground states: Arizona, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. On Monday, the groups announced a campaign called “Four Is Enough,” which will buy ads on Facebook, Google, Hulu, Instagram, Pandora, and YouTube.
Tara McGowan, a former press secretary for Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and digital producer for Obama’s 2012 campaign, is founder and CEO of Acronym. David Plouffe, Obama’s 2008 campaign manager and 2012 adviser, is on the group’s board and will help raise the tens of millions of dollars they plan to spend between Acronym and Pacronym. They have already raised roughly $30 million, according to The New York Times.
After working on Obama’s 2012 campaign, McGowan was digital director of NextGen Climate Action, a super PAC founded and funded by current presidential contender and hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer.
Previous Acronym staff also came from the Obama—and Clinton—orbits. Greta Carnes, who was a field organizer for Obama in 2012 and a Clinton digital organizer in 2016, is Acronym’s senior organizing director as well as national organizing director for the Pete Buttigieg campaign, according to her LinkedIn profile. It’s possible that Carnes is no longer with Acronym and hasn’t updated her profile.
Acronym’s former treasurer, political strategist Hannah Linkenhoker, worked on Clinton’s 2008 campaign. Clinton tweeted her approval of the “Four Is Enough” campaign on Tuesday.
In August, Acronym announced a $10 million online voter registration drive in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and Texas.
Clues About Funding
Founded in 2017, Acronym is a 501(c)(4) “social welfare” nonprofit, meaning that it’s not required to disclose its donors, so we don’t know who is providing the $75 million that Acronym plans to spend. And Acronym did not respond Sludge’s multiple attempts to ask about its contributors.
We do, however, know about the funding behind Pacronym, which as a super PAC is required to report its funders to the Federal Election Commission.
In the 2018 election cycle, Pacronym received the bulk of its funding ($2 million) from the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, a political nonprofit led by Obama’s first attorney general, Eric Holder. Acronym and Pacronym were largely focused on state legislative races during that cycle.
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Pacronym also got $300,000 from Acronym and $50,000 from Dollar Shave Club CEO Michael Dubin, who was an Acronym board member as of mid-2018. Dubin is also on the board of Papa John’s, a company with a rightwing CEO who opposes LGBTQ rights and has co-founded free-market academic centers with the Charles Koch Foundation.
Since 2017, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee has received six- or seven-figure amounts from 23 donors, most of whom are unions or corporate executives, according to Sludge’s review of IRS documents. Billionaire hedge fund manager George Soros ($2.6 million) and media executive Fred Eychaner ($1.5 million) sit atop the funders, while unions American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME; $572,000), Air Line Pilots Association PAC ($300,000), and Service Employees International Union COPE ($200,000) have also contributed large sums.
This time around, Acronym and Pacronym need to raise far more than they did last cycle, and the groups will likely solicit funding from Democratic megadonors who have financed McGowan and Plouffe’s previous efforts.
Prior to founding Acronym, McGowan spent four years as the digital director of liberal hybrid super PAC Priorities USA Action, which received big donations from wealthy Democratic Party donors such as Haim Saban, James Simons, Soros, Donald Sussman, and the Emerson Collective, the LLC run by Laurene Powell Jobs, in the 2016 election cycle. This year, the group has continued to receive millions from Sussman and has gotten donations from Florida billionaire Marsha Laufer and unions including the American Federation of Teachers and AFSCME.
Acronym and Pacronym haven’t taken sides in the Democratic presidential primary, but some of their potential donors are more comfortable with centrist or center-left candidates, as opposed to progressives Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
Laufer, a former Clinton fundraiser, told the Washington Times she “would like to see the party more left of center rather than to the extreme left” when discussing Warren’s refusal to attend big-dollar fundraising events. (In 2018, Laufer and her husband, Henry, hosted Warren at a fundraiser for her Senate campaign.) Laufer had praise for Joe Biden, saying he represents “stability of government, truth and values in a traditional sense that people are longing for.”
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Others possible funders may be okay with Warren, but certainly not the democratic socialist Sanders.
Billionaire Clinton ally Saban has said he likes all the Democratic presidential candidates except Sanders, whom he “profoundly dislikes.”
Emily Tisch Sussman, a political strategist, former Center for American Progress employee, and the daughter of liberal megadonor and hedge fund executive Donald Sussman, claimed that Sanders supporters were sexist for not backing Warren over the Vermont senator.
Connected For-Profit Scores Big Contracts
In February 2017, one month before launching Acronym, MacGowan founded political consulting firm Lockwood Strategy Lab, a for-profit C-corporation registered in Delaware. According to Acronym’s 2017 tax form, Lockwood Strategy is a wholly-owned affiliate of Acronym.
The nonprofit paid the firm $35,000 for digital consulting that year.
In the 2018 election cycle, Lockwood Strategy was by far the biggest vendor to Pacronym, scoring $1 million to book ads in Pennsylvania state races. Lockwood does not work exclusively for Acronym and Pacronym; while Pacronym is Lockwood’s biggest client, it has had other customers including voter mobilization group Win Justice ($245,000 from 2017-18), Planned Parenthood Votes ($72,000), and Sen. Jeff Merkely’s (D-Ore.) campaign ($10,500).
Plouffe’s role at Acronym may also provide some outside benefits. While he books Facebook ads and encourages Democrats to increase their online ad spending, he’ll continue on as leader of policy and advocacy at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Facebook CEO’s charitable LLC.
Meanwhile, Acronym and its CEO are pushing back against others’ assertions that Facebook should follow in Twitter’s footsteps and ban political advertising. McGowan wrote in a Nov. 3 Medium post that ending such ads would make it more difficult for Democrats, who rely more on small-dollar donors than Republicans, to fundraise.
Acronym is in charge of a second for-profit firm, a technology company that it acquired this year. Shadow, Inc., which is run by Obama, Clinton, Apple, and Google veterans, focuses on “building accessible, user-centered products to enable progressive organizers to run smarter campaigns.”
As with Acronym, Lockwood Strategy and Pacronym did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The Ads Begin
Pacronym has launched roughly 120 Facebook and Instagram ads since Monday, according to the companies’ ad library. Most posts request donations or advertise merchandise available on Pacronym’s website, an effort to lure small donors into its fundraising mix.
Acronym began its 2019 advertising on YouTube in October with ads critical of Trump in the context of the Ukraine scandal, per Google’s ad archive. Including two ads from 2018, the nonprofit has spent $100,000 on YouTube ads.
Acronym has been advertising on Twitter since late April, having spent around $1,500. The group has not run new ads since Twitter announced its ban on political ads on Oct. 30, and it’s unclear if it will be allowed to advertise on Twitter in the future.