Business/Finance

Super PAC money exposes myth of 'democratic' politics

During their 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama and John McCain both claimed the support of the people, citing evidence of small donors who gave to their campaigns. Both used that as a claim to be the true inheritors of the populist mantle.

We were so naive back then about purchasing power financing campaigns. How times have changed despite the continuing fiction of claims by candidates of “popular” support. Our small $201 checks no longer matter. Other people write bigger checks. Corporations can write indescribably large checks.

A report from the Campaign Finance Institute following the 2008 election refuted their claims. Looking at small donors (at least $201), mid-range donors ($201-$999) and large donors ($1,000 and up), the CFI concluded that nearly half of the 450 million donations to President Obama’s campaign committee came from the $1,000-and-up donors.

Both Obama’s and McCain’s campaign made use of bundlers (fundraisers who package checks from other donors), a practice perfected by President George W. Bush. Each raised tens of millions of dollars through the bundled checks of large donors.

Well, presidential candidates are populists no more. Super PACs, organizations freed by the Supreme Court to raise unlimited amounts of money for electioneering communications, have killed that lingering civics-class fantasy.

President Obama’s campaign continues to try to perpetuate the myth that his principal support comes from “small” donors. He has raised about half of his campaign committee’s $125 million (so far) from under-$200 donors. The man of the people, Mitt Romney, has pulled in about $56.5 million for his campaign committee — and less than 10 percent came from small donors.

But enter folks like billionaire Harold Simmons. According to the Center for Responsive Politics:

Simmons and his holding company, Contran Corp., gave $8.5 million to three super PACs, two of which support candidates for the GOP presidential nomination, in the last quarter of the year. [emphasis added]

Enter casino mogul Sheldon Adelson et familia. Without the $11 million-plus given to super PACs by him and his family, Newt Gingrich would quietly drown in the political quagmires of his own creation.

And that small-donor populist, President Obama? First, he has a network of 445 bundlers who bring in millions of dollars to his campaign committee; 61 of those brought in at least a half-million dollars each.

Second, there’s the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA Action. Sadly, it’s relatively poor ($4.1 million) compared with pro-Newt and pro-Mitt super PACs. But give it time: As The Boston Globe reports, “reliably liberal donors” contribute. You know the ones: Hollywood and labor unions. They’ll eventually open their wallets. But will they be needed?

“That [super PAC] hasn’t really caught on with progressive donors,’’ said Anthony Corrado, professor of government at Colby College. “There are plenty of ways to support the president without having to give to a super PAC. At this point, the expectation is the president’s campaign committee will be very well-funded, and he’s not going to need the additional resources a super PAC might generate.’’

I’m not so sure. At least 290 super PACs exist. Of the top 10 grossing super PACs, conservative-oriented ones have raised nearly $60 million; liberal-oriented ones only $17.3 million.

The CFI report defined “large” donors as those who gave $1,000 or more to formal candidate campaign committees. But even those donors were limited to a maximum total donation. Not so the donors to super PACs. Thanks to reporting by Nicholas Confessore and Michael Luo of The New York Times, we learn:

Close to 60 corporations and wealthy individuals gave checks of $100,000 or more to a “super PAC” supporting Mitt Romney in the months leading up to the Iowa caucuses, according to documents released on Tuesday, underwriting a $17 million blitz of advertising that has swamped his Republican rivals in the early primary states. [emphasis added]

The law says super PACs cannot “coordinate” with candidates’ own campaign committees. But Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have exploded that particular legal dodge, haven’t they?

Super PACs, because they are permitted to spend half their revenues in “electioneering communications,” will have a far greater influence than candidates’ own campaign committees. In the four GOP primary contests, super PACs have spent about $44 million. And on what? Attack ads. Vicious, unrelenting, often misleading attack ads.

After just four nominating contests in January, the super PACs already account for nearly half of all television ads bought so far, according to the Wesleyan Media Project. Meanwhile, ads funded by the candidates themselves dropped 40 percent.

Super PACs are accumulating extraordinary amounts of political money. We’ve all been focused on the role of super PACs in the presidential campaigns. But as I wrote more than two years ago, billionaires rule politics beyond presidential campaigns. Think Bloomberg for mayor. Think Whitman for governor.

Super PACs will have more than enough money to pour into presidential politics. But the spending won’t end there. They’ve taken aim at backing candidates for or re-electing incumbents to Congress. Reports Dan Eggen of The Washington Post:

The powerful political groups known as super PACs, whose heavy spending has become a significant factor in the presidential race, are also beginning to play a role in congressional races around the country. The groups have set off a scramble among candidates in both parties, who are now struggling to cope with a flood of negative ads run by organizations that are outside their direct control.

Targets of super PAC money in recent months include at least two dozen pivotal House districts around the country, along with high-profile Senate races in states such as Massachusetts, Ohio, Utah and Indiana, according to Federal Election Commission data and interviews with political strategists.

Can super PAC-funded advertising in gubernatorial races be far behind?

Big political money, it seems, follows a basic Reaganomics principle: Trickle down. So much money controlled by the very wealthy, corporations, and unions now rules politics at an increasing number of levels.

If you take pride in giving the reportable $201 donation to a candidate’s campaign committee, you’re still living in a a fantasy that your gift matters.

1 reply »

  1. Anybody interested in a form of campaign financing which legislators will vote for because it won’t penalize them, which will destroy the advantage implied in having the most cash which will end the obligation of the winner towards his biggest contributors and which will enrich the citizen who pays attention to the campaign? It’s possible, and it can be implemented race by race, rather than systemically.

    I didn’t think so.

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