Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Super PACs: A Growing Influence

By Kyle OefeleinPublished November 11, 2015

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The approaching 2016 election is poised to further explore the far reaching implications of the Supreme Court's decision regarding campaign finance policy. As super PACs continue to change the landscape of an election, it becomes increasingly important for voters to be cognizant of the money behind the candidate.
By Kyle Oefelein 11/11/2015
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    Super PACs are private groups funded and organized to elect a candidate or to advance a specific legislative issue.  Unlike PACs, which only allow donations under $5000 from individuals, super PACs can accept unlimited amounts from corporations and individuals. The one catch is that PACs can be linked to a specific political candidate, while super PACs cannot be. This line is blurry however, as while a candidate cannot have his or her  name in the super PAC title, and must keep his or her finances separate, the super PAC is closely tied to their campaign.

    This recent change in the political landscape was spurred by two landmark Supreme Court cases handed down in 2010: Citizens United v. FEC and SpeechNow.org v. FEC.  Both of these cases cleared the way for money to be viewed as speech, thereby allowing corporations, individuals, and unions to donate unlimited funds to these committees.

    Jeb Bush recently appeared at an event hosted by a super PAC closely tied to his campaign, Right to Rise, as a "special guest.  Bush toed the line on super PAC rules by appearing at a retreat for top donors of Right to Rise. Attendees were required to pay to attend the event, but since Jeb did not directly ask donors for more than $5,000 a person, there was no actual breach.  This event shows just how closely linked a candidate and a super PAC can be, without violating the official ban on "coordination" between super PACs and candidates.

    This recent change had a huge impact on the 2012 presidential election, adding more than $600 million to the candidates' war chests. This "dark money" is projected to play an even larger role in 2016, with the primaries already saturated with this type of funding. (See Below Table: Photo Credit)

    Most candidates, especially Republicans trying to win in a crowded primary, receive significantly more money from super PACs than they earn through personal fundraising. More and more of a candidate's funding is coming from these committees, changing the way elections work on a fundamental level. Additionally, many of these candidates now rely heavily on the donations of a few extremely wealthy individuals. Altogether, fifty-eight $1,000,000donors were responsible for more than 40 percent of the total amount raised by GOP and Democratic super PACs as of June 30th. Wealthy individuals have more of an influence than ever before in who is elected to our government.

    Some candidates have taken a stand against this money, with Trump refusing to accept super-PAC funds.  He claims, "I am self-funding my campaign and therefore I will not be controlled by the donors, special interests and lobbyists who have corrupted our politics and politicians for far too long." As contested as Trump's ties to his super PAC may be, he is attracting attention to the issue, and challenging establishment candidates to disavow this form of funding. Bernie Sanders has also taken a stand against super PACs, declining to allow an affiliated super PAC, and asking unaffiliated super PACs to cease and desist.

    While the right to spend your money in support of your interests may have been deemed free speech, it seems to amplify the voices of the privileged while mitigating the interests of the average citizen.  As the primaries unfold and the 2016 election truly begins, super PACs are sure to have an increasing influence on the process.  While this decision is unlikely to be overturned in the near future, an understanding of the committees and how they affect the election and the candidates is crucial to making an informed decision on Election Day.  To know who we are truly voting for, we need know who a candidate owes.