Bill Maher has a new plan: leverage his television show to get some incumbent member of Congress ejected from his seat. It's probably legal. It's probably not going to work.
Here's what Maher's thinking, as explained by The New York Times. Step one: Ask viewers of Real Time with Bill Maher to identify which member of Congress they think is most deserving of being ousted. Step two: Figure out the sweet spot between who the viewers want and who might actually be beatable. Step three: Try and make the person lose.
Maher wouldn't be the first TV personality to get involved in election work; in 2012, Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert famously raised seven figures into a Super PAC, most of which ended up being donated to charity. Colbert's point was to make fun of the funding system. Maher's goal, apparently, is to actually change Congress.
Is it legal?
The Wire spoke by phone with Richard Briffault, professor of law at Columbia Law School and an expert on election law. "After Citizens United" — the Supreme Court decision that made election spending more clearly covered under free speech rules — "corporations can now engage in direct advocacy," Briffault pointed out, meaning that there's nothing preventing Maher from telling people to vote against whoever he wants.
There are boundaries of course. "Some portion of his time on this show will be treated as electionaeering," Briffault said, "and it will have to report to the FEC what they're spending and where the money is coming from." The show is produced by Bill Maher Productions, Brad Grey Television, and HBO (the station on which it airs); some unlucky accountant will need to sit down with an unlucky lawyer and figure out what percent of the show's spending was used to promote or oppose a candidate and then report those numbers to the government. (Often, this is calculated as a percentage. If an episode costs $1.2 million to make with all costs included, and one-third of it was spent on electioneering, the company might report $400,000 to the FEC.)
There are boundaries when it comes to actual campaign contributions, a line that is crossed if, for example, Maher works with the candidate he hopes wins the race. As long as Maher's expenses on the race aren't coordinated with the person he hopes wins, he can spend what he wants. And, Briffault notes, the line for when Maher is actually coordinating with a candidate is very finely drawn. "If he's urging people to give to a candidate and has him on the show, that's not necessarily coordination, believe it or not," Briffault said. "Things you and I might think are coordination might not seem that way to the FEC." If Maher and the candidate plan on who will say what and when, that's coordination. Otherwise, there's a lot he can get away with.
Will it work?
Maher is a "top performer" for HBO, according to the company's most recent renewal announcement, with an average of 4.1 million viewers per show. If you change 4.1 million minds, you can make a difference.
But Maher doesn't need to change 4.1 million minds, he needs to convince 50.01 percent of the minds of people who vote in one congressional district. Figure that's about 500,000 residents, 20 percent of whom vote, and we're talking about needing to get 50,001 people in one place to vote against someone his viewers choose. That's a much trickier task.
As with any endorsing body, Maher will only target a race he might be able to influence. He's letting viewers pick, so conservative viewers will probably pile on House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, for example. Democrats — more of his audience — will pick Speaker John Boehner. But there's no point in trying to oust them; they're both in very safe districts. There are only 15 districts that the authoritative Cook Political Report considers toss-ups right now, most of them with Democratic incumbents.
Colorado Republican Rep. Mike Coffman seems like the best first-pass target, but Maher has another consideration to make: who makes good TV. Maher wants people to keep tuning in to see this jerk they're trying to get out of DC; if Coffman doesn't fit the mold, it gets tricky. Maher would much rather focus on a flamboyant Michael "I'll Break You in Half" Grimm than a bland politician who's more likely to lose.
Which is why this likely won't work. Maher will get a flush of press attention — a plan that's already working. But most voters in the district at stake won't watch his show. They'll hear about what's said, but, as the show's executive producer notes to The Times, will probably view the show's efforts as an unwarranted intrusion into their local election. "'We do not want to do harm,' [the producer] said, but he suggested that many people might welcome 'Hollywood types' adding a little pizazz to a local race." Maybe. That probably depends on where the race is happening.
Winning an election takes a lot more than money and press attention, the two things Maher can bring. It depends on policy issues, day-to-day hiccups, candidate strength, voter engagement. What Maher may end up proving is not that Hollywood can plant its heavy foot into a congressional district and reshape Washington. What he will likely prove instead is that the perception that heavyweights can pick and choose who they want to win isn't actually how it works.
But Maher doesn't really want a new Congressman for people in Colorado or whatever. He wants ratings. So, in that sense, the plan will work like a charm.