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How super PACs are changing the GOP presidential race

Two years ago, Newt Gingrich’s $10M money bomb would have been illegal.

Newt Gingrich remains a viable candidate in the Republican presidential race today in large part because of a $10 million donation — half arriving just before and half just after the South Carolina primary — from a Las Vegas casino billionaire and his wife.

Two years ago, that money bomb would have been illegal. Now, it’s a prominent feature of Campaign 2012, in which unlimited sums of money donated to “super political-action committees” — not directly to a candidate’s own campaign — can, in an instant, reset the odds for a race.

So far, these outside groups — super PACs, for short — have collectively spent $40.9 million to influence 2012 presidential and congressional races. That’s twice what had been spent by outside groups at the same point in the 2008 campaign cycle, when both parties had competitive presidential nominating races, according to the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington.

They are also having an impact on the tone and scope of political ads. Candidate-sponsored ads, which accounted for 97 percent of advertising in the 2008 GOP presidential primary, dropped to 56 percent of the total in the 2012 primaries through Jan. 25, according to the Wesleyan Media Project, analyzing data by Kantar Media. Moreover, the super PAC ads are overwhelmingly negative.

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So what, you ask? The US Supreme Court, after all, ruled in 2010 that such unlimited spending on campaigns is a way for people and corporations to exercise their free-speech rights. What difference has this infusion of political cash via super PACs made, really, to Election 2012?

That jury is still out on the long-term impacts, but political analysts see the super PACs changing the nature of the presidential campaign. They’ve helped produce an unusually bitter and volatile GOP primary season, turning the airwaves in early-voting states toxic with negative ads. They’ve also extended the campaigns of candidates who otherwise might not have lasted, they say. Some candidates have even complained that the unlimited spending by outside groups is eclipsing the messages of their own campaigns (though critics say those are crocodile tears, given a super PAC’s ability to convey a scorching message that a candidate is happy to have someone else deliver).

Take those checks from Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, which went to Winning Our Future, a newly minted super PAC staffed by former Gingrich aides but by law not affiliated with the Gingrich campaign. The super PAC used the extra millions to buy broadcast time for a 28-minute smear ad on rival Mitt Romney‘s record creating jobs, the linchpin of his campaign. “Nothing mattered but greed,” the ad’s narrator said. “The suffering began when Mitt Romney came to town.”

The ad stirred a backlash, especially among establishment conservatives. But its fighting tone and Mr. Gingrich’s own feisty debate appearances seemed to draw voter support in South Carolina. As for the ad’s inaccuracies and accusatory tone, Gingrich said it was all out of his hands.

South Carolina became a Gingrich rout — payback for blistering ads from Restore Our Future, a super PAC staffed by Romney backers, that had helped topple then-front-runner Gingrich in the Iowa caucuses earlier in January.

Even as super PACS emerge as the junkyard dogs of Campaign 2012, their influence is being hotly debated. Their defenders, mainly conservatives, say super PACs’ ability to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money — including from corporations or unions still barred from contributing directly to candidate campaigns — marks an end to limits on free speech imposed by Congress.

“The Supreme Court has determined that political free speech is protected under the Constitution,” says Barney Keller, a spokesman for the Club for Growth, an antitax group that has funded political ads. “Outside groups like us have a constitutionally protected right to say what we want in an election.”

The Adelsons, for their part, have said their contribution to the pro-Gingrich super PAC was to help a friend, with no strings attached.

But for advocates of campaign-finance reform, the rise of big-money super PACs represents a step backward toward pre-Watergate days, before Congress sought to impose some discipline on funds politicians could accept — or extort — from corporations or individuals.

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“We’ve come close to full circle,” says Michael Malbin of the Campaign Finance Institute. “But as long as contribution limits are in place, even if they are circumvented by the super PACs, you don’t have quite the possibilities for extortion that you saw with the [Richard] Nixon reelection campaign.”

Some critics question whether the ban on coordination between candidates and the super PACs supporting them is mere fiction.

“There is no wall between the campaigns and the super PACs,” says David Donnelly of the Public Campaign Action Fund, a group that advocates campaign- finance reform to limit the influence of big donors on elections. “They are coordinating through the media. What it takes right now to be a leading candidate is not the ability to raise money; it’s to find a handful of incredibly wealthy individuals to spend incredible amounts of money on your behalf.”

Exhibit A is the up-and-down impact of super PACs on the Gingrich campaign.

The pro-Romney Restore Our Future PAC, created last July, has so far spent $17.5 million in the 2012 campaign, mainly to attack Gingrich on ethics, judgment, and electability. Barely funded in Iowa, Gingrich was caught off guard by its negative ads against him.

“If you were watching television in Iowa, you were seeing wall-to-wall anti-Gingrich [ads] in the evening,” says David Perlmutter, director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. “The wildly fluctuating poll numbers in Iowa were, to some extent, the result of the money bombs.”

In South Carolina, super PAC spending helped produce an unusually toxic campaign, in a state where politics is often rough-and-tumble.

“This is the nastiest, hardest-hitting campaign I’ve ever seen in 25 years in South Carolina,” says former GOP political consultant David Woodard. “The super PACs were the ones who really ramped up the negativity.

“I know this stuff works, but the question is how much of it — and what happens to the dignity of the candidate when so much of it is filled with this exaggerated nonsense?” he adds.

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Concern about big-spending outside groups is prompting efforts to curtail their influence — by both candidates and grass-roots activists.

In the US Senate race in Massachusetts, Sen. Scott Brown (R) and likely Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren struck a pact on Jan. 23 to try to limit special-interest attack ads in their race, expected to be the most heavily funded Senate contest this cycle. Under the deal, proposed by Senator Brown, both candidates agreed to donate half the cost of any third-party ad attacking the other to charity.

But outside groups say the deal is not enforceable — and that super PACs and other monied outside groups will not be deterred. Some complain that the Brown-Warren pact is unbalanced because it does not take into account union contributions that can’t be measured in cash.

“Because the agreement allows union phone banks, direct mail, and get-out-the-vote drives — all union core specialties — Warren’s latest agreement has loopholes the Teamsters could drive a truck through … and government unions could drive forklifts of paperwork through,” said Steven Law of American Crossroads, a conservative super PAC that has raised $6.7 million to date for its use in the 2012 election, in an e-mail.

Meanwhile, critics on the left say the only way out is to directly challenge the Supreme Court’s interpretation that money is speech, via an amendment to the US Constitution.

“With the negative effects of the Supreme Court decision [in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission] already becoming clear, a constitutional amendment is necessary to safeguard against the influence of big money and anonymous spending,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon, in a Jan. 26 statement.

He is proposing a constitutional amendment that would authorize Congress to regulate the raising and spending of money for federal political campaigns. Amending the Constitution, though, is an arduous process, requiring ratification by at least 37 states. It would take years.