The Reality of Super PACs
The opportunity for unlimited money to flow into federal campaigns became a reality in 2010 with Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission in which the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment barred a federal law from limiting the amount of political expenditures by outside groups on the basis that it restricted political free speech (Wikipedia). It also allowed just about anyone, most notably corporations and labor unions, to contribute unlimited funds to these outside groups. Furthermore, donors can often remain anonymous thanks to loop holes in campaign finance laws which super PACs use to their advantage by funneling money through 501(c)(4) groups, also known as dark money spending.
While super PACs have no limits on the money funneled through them, they are not permitted to coordinate strategy with candidates, which is the reason proponents argue that political corruption is not possible within a super PAC. On the other hand, good government advocates argue that this creates a large grey area by leaving room for a certain amount of interpretation. Before Rick Santorum’s 2012 presidential campaign was suspended, the chief donor Foster Friess traveled with Santorum at times, and it is argued that such trips served to strategize his campaign. Just how much independence a candidate is expected to maintain from supporting super PACs and wealthy interest groups leads to major complications and concerns in how the ever confusing campaign finance laws are interpreted and implemented. Regardless of the arguments, super PACs are an ever growing presence in today’s political landscape. Wealthy donors clearly see them as a significant method to support favorable candidates, but just how much influence they have shows less than consistent results—which proves that money alone will not guarantee victory for a candidate.
The First Big Experiment
On paper, the theory of American elections being up for sale with the evolution of super PACs looks plausible, but there are too many dynamic variables—especially in a presidential campaign—that skew the benefit of throwing unlimited money in pursuit of victory. The 2012 presidential campaign was the first major experiment with super PACs on the national stage. With their unlimited expenditures in play, super PACs spent a total of $653 million in their efforts to influence the election (OpenSecrets). However, the Obama and Romney campaigns—with traditional campaign donations—amassed enough in their war chests to spend $1.12 billion in the general election, nearly twice as much as the super PACs.
Voters often favor a particular party based on their own political ideology, so a candidate's characteristics become an important factor for advertising campaigns to consider as they attempt to swing voters appeal to a particular candidate. In 2012, conservative super PACs focused ad campaigns on undecided voters in battleground states who liked President Obama. Those undecided voters were seen as a crucial element for a GOP victory. Swing states tend to have a higher voter turnout which potentially correlates to more people having educated political views in those areas. However, such people are less likely to swing against the party line based on an advertisement campaign alone, which helps explain the results from voter opinion polls that revealed less than desired influence from the efforts put forth by super PACs.
A critical factor to consider is a diminishing marginal return to campaign ads which Jamelle Bouie, a reporter with the Wall Street Journal asserts, "the more you saturate the airwaves, the less effective advertising becomes" (Bouie). Negative ad campaigns which tend to cause more frustration among voters are particularly less effective. Neil King Jr. with the Wall Street Journal notes that two of the largest super PACs supporting Romney, Americans for Prosperity and Restore Our Future, spent $18 million attempting to make Romney more competitive in Michigan and Pennsylvania, yet President Obama led by 10% in Pennsylvania and 8% in Michigan (King). Although conservative super PACs spent the most of all outside groups, Romney managed to lose the election after an unexpected campaign gaffe. Romney’s loss proves that while money is an important factor, it is not everything when it comes to winning a presidential election.
A Second Opportunity for Conservative Super PACs
The lack of return on conservative super PAC investments in the last presidential election should have been a hard lesson learned with what appears to be an astonishing amount of money wasted; nevertheless, super PACs are set to equal or exceed spending by both of the political parties in the 2016 presidential campaign. It appears rich donors are not as politically competent as people might expect. Jamelle Bouie contends, "[rich donors] have tens of millions of dollars to spend, but there’s no guarantee that they have any sense of what makes a campaign effective. . . . To a large degree, they are political berserkers—organizations of tremendous, unfocused power" (Bouie). Furthermore, Bouie points to a piece on Buzz Feed News written by Ruby Cramer and Ben Smith who suggests, "[rich donors] are meddlers and dilettantes, full of terrible advice and inane questions" (Cramer). While rich donors have millions of dollars to spend, they’re of limited usefulness with such unfocused power—which directly impacts the effectiveness of the super PACs largely funded by those rich donors.
Once again in the current presidential campaign it becomes obvious that money alone is not enough to claim political victory. The super PAC, Right to Rise USA who supports Jeb Bush, spent $32 million in an attempt to bring new hope into his campaign, but so far those efforts have failed. On the other hand, Marco Rubio continues to climb in the polls without any significant expenditure from his supporting super PACs. In comparison, democratic super PACs also don’t seem to have any real influence at this point in the campaign. Emilie Stigliani, a reporter for the Burlington Free Press, observed the super PAC Correct The Record, who supports Hillary Clinton, paid for a poll to be performed after the second democratic debate. The poll results were in favor of Clinton winning the debate; however the pollster said that the super PAC had no sway in the results. They claim that all questions and poll respondents were subjectively chosen by the compensated polling firm, Public Policy Polling. This contrasted to online surveys that showed Bernie Sanders won the debate in a landslide, according to a spokesperson from the Sanders campaign (Stigliani). A super PAC who expects unbiased poll results when they fund the poll themselves is an example of unfocused and poor sense displayed by wealthy donors expenditure demands of the super PACs they support.
The danger of these modern factions backed by wealthy elites like the Koch brothers are becoming more concerning in the 2016 presidential campaign. The Koch brothers are known for their extreme political involvement and ties to conservative interest groups with their primary goals to reduce regulation, corporate taxes, and the size of government. Nicholas Confessore, a political reporter with the New York Times, notes the amount of money the Koch brothers plan to spend in the 2016 presidential election is set to match both parties' spending, "an unparalleled effort by coordinated outside groups to shape a presidential election that is already on track to be the most expensive in history" (Confessore). The Koch brothers persistent attempts to buy what are supposed to be elected positions in government—especially the White House—are incredibly bold and dangerous. Although the wealthy elite are a minority, they are nevertheless a powerful minority in which James Madison exemplified as those “who are united and actuated by a common impulse of passion with the unequal distribution of property being the most common source” (Madison). Despite the fact that evidence shows super PACs have so far lacked the influence that proponents claim they have, it is important to recognize that they have collected far more money than they have spent so far in the 2016 campaign.
The Best Opportunity at Success
Super PACs were now being reported as a crucial ingredient to win a congressional race, according to Dan Eggen, the political campaigns editor with the Washington Post (Eggen). The amount of money spent by single-candidate super PACs in congressional races was three times greater in 2012 at $30.8 million, compared to $9.3 million just two years prior. The increased support to single-candidate super PACs continues an upward trend in spite of the failed influence of larger super PACs in the last presidential election. Given the national fanfare and spotlight on presidential elections, wealthy donors have realized that focused spending in down-ticket races is the best road to success. The results can be attributed to the fact that advertising campaigns are better suited for lesser known candidates in races that receive little attention in comparison to an already highly publicized presidential election.
The evidence collectively shows that money can have an impact on the outcome of some elections, but it does not guarantee political victory. The presidential campaigns proved to be tougher for super PACs to have the desired influence that rich donors had hoped for—given the popularity of the executive race and the amount of money candidates are able to raise from traditional methods. Because the amount of money raised by super PACs is expected to match or exceed that of the parties’ campaign for the first time in history, it remains to be seen if super PACs will have more influence in the 2016 presidential election than they did in 2012. More predictable success was seen in tight congressional races in which candidates who knew wealthy people willing to contribute large sums of money had a considerable advantage over those candidates who did not have wealthy contributors. The impact of increased control over congressional elections becomes quite disturbing when considering who is spending the money. As large corporations and elite Americans increase the sums of money they contribute in order to protect their self-serving bias, and as super PACs shift more focus on congressional races, there will be an ever changing landscape in political finance, and quite likely, legislation that favors those wealthy elite.
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