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Democratic senators Charles Schumer and Al Franken criticise the secretive nature of donations to so-called 'Super PACs'.
Democratic senators Charles Schumer and Al Franken criticise the secretive nature of donations to so-called 'Super PACs'.
Image: J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Explainer: The ‘Super PAC’ and how it’s changing US elections forever

We explain the origin of the ‘Super PAC’ – and how their unlimited clout threatens to rewrite the political rule book.
Apr 15th 2012, 9:15 AM 2,981 14

WITH MITT ROMNEY having now all but secured his place on the ballot paper, focus in the US presidential election now turns to the national stage where Romney will face Barack Obama in November’s head-to-head.

The 2012 election will be the first presidential ballot to be dominated by the so-called ‘Super PACs’, bodies which act almost as decoy campaigns for candidates – doing the negative work while candidates themselves concentrate on the positives.

But what is a ‘Super PAC’, and how did they emerge?

A big business, without the Big Business

It’s well known that US politics is an expensive business. Members of the House of Representatives spend around $1m on every congressional campaign. This puts major strain on incumbent politicians, who are up for re-election every two years: they have to raise almost $10,000 a week if they stand a chance of keeping their jobs at the next election.

In order to try and tackle the surging costs of politics, two leading Senators – Republican John McCain and Democrat Russ Feingold – brought forward new legislation in 2002 which put an outright ban on corporate donations, and banned third parties from running ads naming an election candidate within a certain period of a ballot taking place.

Conservative think-tank Citizens United challenged the legislation in 2008, going all the way to the Supreme Court, which in 2010 ruled that the ban on trade union and corporate spending was unconstitutional.

A subsequent case two months later, taken by another conservative group SpeechNow.org – whose stated goal is to protect the First Amendment (the right to freedom of speech) – saw a lower court in Washington D.C. rule that limits could not be put on the spending of those apolitical groups.

The combined result of the two cases was that the rights of trade unions, corporations, or other vested interests to spend money on political causes could not be restricted at all – leaving the door open for anyone to throw as much money as they wanted on a campaign. This opened the door for what we today call the ‘Super PAC’ (or Super ‘Political Action Committee’).

An open door

Most PACs are essentially tantamount to what we know in Ireland as a constituency organisation. They’re bound by laws which limit the amount they can take from individuals ($2,500), and stop them from taking any direct financial support from companies or unions.

Thanks to the various court rulings, however, ‘Super PACs’ are not bound by such laws. They can accept as much cash as they can get, and spend it however they choose.

The only rule is that they have to act independently of a candidate’s campaign, and that any ads they run need to specifically declare who is paying for them. In some cases, laws can be exploited so that the Super PAC itself doesn’t even have to disclose who’s providing its money.

Their essence, in short, is to exploit the Supreme Court’s rulings by taking out unlimited advertising denouncing the actions of whoever they like – with the sole purpose of discrediting and attacking the opponents of candidates they favour.

The 2012 elections aren’t the first where they’ll have made their clout known. In the 2010 mid-terms, predominantly conservative groups such as American Crossroads poured millions into TV advertising in areas where Congressional elections were getting close, attacking the credentials of Democratic candidates and swaying opinion back to their Republican opponents.

2012, however, is the first time they’ll have had a presence in Presidential campaigns. Already they’ve held sway: one such group, Restore Our Future, is credited with helping Mitt Romney to see off the challenge of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum in the Republican primaries.

Figures from earlier this month show Restore Our Future as having spent over $40 million so far, mostly on ads hyping up Romney and attacking his Republican rivals for the Presidential nomination. (By comparison, Romney’s official campaign had raised $73m.) A Gingrich-supporting group Winning Our Future had spent $16 million, compared to the ‘official’ Gingrich campaign which had collected $20.6m in donations.

Here’s one example of an ad run by Restore Our Future, trying to make the point that Gingrich was not a capable opponent for Barack Obama. See if you can spot Mitt Romney’s name anywhere in the ad.

‘Independent’ campaigns

It takes a certain degree of naivety, however, to assume that these groups are totally independent from the original candidates. Many of the leading Super PACs (including the Obama-supporting ‘Priorities USA Action’) are led by people who formerly worked for the candidates they support.

In Obama’s case, founder Bill Burton used to be Obama’s deputy White House press secretary. Romney, meanwhile, has openly supported the Super PAC that’s doing his attacking for him – founded by the political director of his failed 2008 bid for the Republican bid, Charles Spies. American Crossroads, which we mentioned earlier, was founded by Karl Rove, a former senior aide to George W Bush.

This point was best made by comedian and satirist Stephen Colbert, who set up a Super PAC late last year before “officially” joining the race for the Republican nomination.

As an official candidate, he then had to sign over control of his PAC – to his Comedy Central buddy Jon Stewart – who renamed his Super PAC “The Definitely Not Coordinating With Stephen Colbert Super PAC”.

(YouTube credit: )

Stewart pointedly ascertained that although Super PACs are not permitted to co-ordinate their actions with a candidate’s official campaign, they can study the political climate just as anyone else would, and act accordingly if they feel it would help their preferred candidate.

As Stewart then pointed out in a press release:

Stephen and I have in no way have worked out a series of morse-code blinks to convey information with each other on our respective shows.

The Super PAC, therefore, is changing US elections forever. With the Supreme Court having copperfastened the rights of corporations and individuals to donate in unlimited amounts, Super PACs are free to exploit the rules that politicians can’t and demolish their opponents, leaving the candidates to run the more ‘positive’ campaigns.

Read: Santorum suspends campaign for Republicans’ Presidential nomination

In full: TheJournal.ie’s coverage of the US election 2012

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Gavan Reilly

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