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Will Super PACs be a Game Changer in the 2012 Presidential Election?

Super PACs Game ChangerSuper PACs (political action committees) have already proven themselves extremely important to political candidates as well as their party affiliations thus far in the primary season. Free to flood a campaign with as much money as they can, this new type of political action committee has already had immense impact on the presidential campaign process. However, the question remains: Will Super PACs be a game changer in the 2012 Presidential Election?

According to the Federal Election Commission’s website, a political action committee, or PAC, is the name given to a private group of any size that is organized to elect political candidates or to advance the outcome of a political issue or legislation.

Under the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, an organization becomes a political committee by receiving contributions or making payments of more than $1,000 for the purpose of influencing a federal election.  When an interest group, union, or corporation wants to contribute to federal candidates or a particular political party, it must do so through a PAC.

In order to understand the basics of political action committees, the Federal Election Commission from which they stemmed must first be explained. The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 is a United States federal law, which explained the rules and regulations behind federal campaign contributions.

It was amended in 1974 to place legal limitations on campaign contributions. This amendment, in turn, created the regulatory organization known as the Federal Election Commission (FEC) that we know today. By federal law as outlined by the FEC, PACs must report all of the financial activities, including direct donations and other expenses, to the Federal Election Commission, which then makes the reports available to the public.

Legally, what constitutes a “PAC” for purposes of regulation is a matter of both state and federal law. These PACs obtain and raise money from a “restricted class,” that commonly consists of managers and shareholders of corporations and individual members who donate funds to candidates for federal office.

However, there are limitations as to what groups and individuals can contribute. The FEC explicitly explains that corporations and unions may not contribute directly to federal PACs. However, they are allowed to pay for the administrative costs of a PAC that is affiliated with a specific corporation or union. The website further explains, “contributions by individuals to federal PACs are limited to $5,000 per year.”

As a result of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit decision in SpeechNow.org v. FEC, PACs which make only “independent expenditures,” which are advertisements or other spending assistance or opposition in the federal candidate election process but are not coordinated with a particular federal candidate or political party, are not bound by contribution limits stated above.

In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, that the government may not prohibit unions and corporations from making independent expenditures in politics. The Supreme Court ruling in this case forever changed the rules regarding corporate campaign expenditures. Direct corporate and union contributions to federal campaigns, however, are still prohibited.

Soon after the Supreme Court ruling of Citizens United v. FEC,  the 2010 election marked the  rise of a new political committee called the “Super PAC,” officially known as an “independent expenditure only committee,” which can raise unlimited sums from corporations, unions and other groups, as well as individuals.

However, since Super PACs are “independent,” they are not allowed to coordinate directly with candidates or political parties. Although, according to Trevor Potter, former chairman of the Federal Election Commission and lawyer of TV satirists Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, a candidate may “talk to his associated Super PAC via the media. And the Super PAC can listen, like everybody else.”

Just like traditional PACS, Super PACs are required to reveal their donors. Despite the fact that many Super PACs do not have a formal connection to a particular campaign, Super PACs openly support particular candidacies.  For example, during the current primary season of the 2012 presidential election, the “Restore Our Future” Super PAC benefits Republican Mitt Romney while attacking his rival Newt Gingrich. In contrast, the “Winning Our Future” Super PAC endorses Gingrich while attacking Romney.

Professor William Mitchell of the Political Science Department described the impact of the Citizens United decision on political campaigns. “The Citizens United decision in essence privatizes the campaign process.  In part, this is a positive development because it means candidates, in theory, should not have to spend as much time raising money themselves instead can let friendly Super PAC do it. This is the Mitt Romney model.  Yet in part this is a negative development as well. The biggest danger, in my opinion, is it breaks the accountability link between candidates and voters,” Mitchell said.

According to a New York Times  article, “Who’s Financing the ‘Super PACs’” from February 2012, “The Times tracked donors to ‘Super PACs’ as they filed reports on Tuesday detailing their activities in the final three months of 2011. Unlike candidates, who can raise a maximum of $2,500 per person for each election, Super PACs are independent from candidates and can raise unlimited amounts from individuals, corporations and labor unions, and spend unlimited amounts to support or oppose a candidate.” The article further outlines each Super PAC along with the particular candidates that they endorse and the funds raised by each member.

The “Restore Our Future” Super PAC, created by former aides to Mitt Romney, is running advertisements in Florida, Nevada and Arizona to oppose Newt Gingrich and has raised the most out of all Super PACs in the 2012 election year with $30.2 million raised so far.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, 318 groups organized as Super PACs had received $98,650,993 and spent $46,191,479 as of this February.  In relation, there were only 84 groups organized as Super PACs during the 2010 midterm elections.

However, Bordelon explained that, “the media coverage of the phenomenon is pervasive and surely litigation surrounding these matters will continue, particularly with political free speech challenges.”

Super PACs have become so popular in the 2012 election as well as in the media, that even satirists Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have one. “Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow,” better known as the “Colbert Super PAC” is a political action committee started by Stephen Colbert. Like all Super PACs, Colbert’s organization can raise unlimited sum of money from corporations, unions and other groups, as well as wealthy individuals.

During the January 12, 2012 episode of “The Colbert Report,” Colbert announced his whimsical plans to form a possible candidacy for “President of the United States of South Carolina.” When told by his lawyers that he could not both run a Super PAC while running for “presidency” at the same time, he transferred control of the Super PAC to Jon Stewart, renaming it “The Definitely Not Coordinating With Stephen Colbert Super PAC.” On January 30, 2012, Stewart transferred the Super PAC back to Colbert. Despite the satirical nature of both Colbert and Stewart’s agendas, in the January 31, 2012 FEC filing, the Super PAC reported raising over $1.02 million.

When asked what he thought of Colbert’s Super PAC, Bordelon said, “I think it is very interesting what Colbert has done and what is his intent to present a social commentary on the process.  He has set up a political action committee and collected funds in a way many would argue should be the way to collect funds in campaigning, but he’s not running for office.  He’s essentially using that process to criticize the decision in Citizens United, a modern political satire if you will.”

Similarly, Dr. Michael Phillips-Anderson of the Communication Department and professor of political communication believes that Colbert has used his Super PAC and television show to discuss and shine a light on Super PACs more than anyone else in media. “I think that without his show fewer people would be aware of the Super PACs and what they can do,” Phillips-Anderson said.

 However, Super PACs have only been increasing in their popularity as well as their controversial nature with this upcoming election. According to Mitchell, “Super PACs will no doubt have some impact on the 2012 campaign. The big losers from this development are the two political parties.” Mitchell went on to explain how both Republican and Democratic Party establishments have lost control of the campaign process in that individuals outside of the formal partisan establishments run Super PACs.

Mitchell also offered an interesting approach in regards to money and politics. He indicated “For democracy to function, voters must be put in a position to make informed choices at the ballot box. Privatization of presidential campaigns and moving them out of the control of the traditional parties undermines the ability of voters to make rational decisions.”

For the first time in election history, Mitchell described, it is not about what candidates say about other candidates, but what anonymous groups say about particular candidates and their positions. We are then approached with the question, “What’s to stop a Super PAC from saying just about anything? Democrats and Republicans must deal with one another after Election Day, thus there are some formal and informal rules on their campaign behavior. Again, for me, Super PACs cloud the notion of accountability in campaigns,” Mitchell revealed.

Lastly, Mitchell described that overall, money has always dominated American presidential campaigns, but that he is “not sure that the general impact of Super PACs is that significant. I favor public financing of presidential campaigns. Take the money out of the process and let campaigns focus on ideas.”

Bordelon also offered an interesting legal outlook with regards to the innovation of Super PACs. “I think that actors in the campaign process have different expectations of the use of Super PACs. Plus, they are still a relatively new phenomenon. Certainly, candidates have an interest in showing to their constituents that they do not want to accept unlimited amounts of money even indirectly or otherwise appear unfair to the electoral process.”

Bordelon went on to describe that the arguments focused on today’s political action committees are not new, however, “are recast in a more technologically advanced era with more money to throw around and with more constant media scrutiny. He continued by explaining that the direct cause of an increased number of Super PACs as a result of the holding in Citizen United is still unfolding. While the Citizens United case was just decided in January of 2010, “this will be the first full campaign cycle where significant electoral impact could be felt,” he said.

Phillips-Anderson expressed how Super PACs have had an immense impact on this upcoming presidential election. “This is the first presidential election since the creation of the Super PACs. We have seen that the Super PAC supporting Romney has used it to keep rivals at bay. The Super PAC supporting Gingrich has almost single handedly kept him in the race. And this week we learned that President Obama will consent to a Super PAC raising money and spending on his behalf, after saying that he thought Super PACs were terrible,” Phillips-Anderson explained.

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