With the presidential election still more than a year away, it is estimated that a record $10 billion will be raised and spent by the time the next president is elected.
That is more than twice as much as the last three White House races combined. And for the first time, the bulk of that money will be raised not by campaigns but by candidate-aligned super PACs, the nominally independent and largely unregulated fundraising juggernauts backed by unlimited contributions from a small pool of wealthy donors.
“We had super PACs in the last election,” said Kenneth Gross, an election lawyer and a former Federal Election Commission (FEC) counsel, “but these new ones put those to shame.”
The dollar amounts are staggering. Candidate-aligned super PACs have already pulled in nearly $250 million in contributions. That dwarfs the $111 million raised by the candidates’ campaigns, which by law are limited to donations of $2,700 per individual per election. Super PACs are a bipartisan phenomenon, but Republican candidates are using them much more aggressively. Nearly $3 out of every $4 that GOP contenders have raised through the end of June have come through their super PACs. Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton is, for now, taking a more traditional approach, outraising her super PAC by more than $30 million.
In the five years since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and subsequent federal court rulings opened the floodgates for unlimited political contributions, super PACs have become the preferred method of influence for ultrawealthy donors. The game changer in the 2016 race, observers say, is that super PACs are now taking on many of the organizational and strategic roles that were once handled by candidates’ campaigns, giving these outside groups unprecedented control over how a presidential race is run.
“What we’re seeing is campaigns offloading some of the normal campaign activity to the super PACs,” said Larry Noble of the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan government ethics group. “They’re doing strategy and grass-roots work for the campaign, using money the campaign could not.”
The costly and labor-intensive task of voter canvassing, a key component of candidates’ get-out-the-vote strategies, has long been integral to campaign operations. In Iowa, though, where the first caucuses are held, supporters going door to door on behalf of Sen. Rand Paul, Gov. Bobby Jindal and Dr. Ben Carson are being recruited and managed by those candidates’ super PACs, removing from those campaigns the financial burden of hiring organizational staffers and canvassers and paying for $40,000 voter lists.
On the ground in Iowa for Paul with a 40-member staff is the Concerned American Voters super PAC, led by veteran grass-roots organizers Matt Kibbe and Jeff Frazee. Kibbe sees the super PAC’s work in Iowa as a natural fit. “We bring a fairly large community of liberty-minded activists who are eager to do this kind of get-out-the-vote work,” he said. “It’s a new model for super PACs.” While acknowledging the potential down the road of duplicating the work of Paul’s other outside groups, he said that right now those other PACs “have a different focus than we do.” Noting that Paul has a built-in audience with the voters who supported his father, Ron Paul, for president in 2012, Kibbe stressed, “At this point, more voter contact, more voter engagement is a good thing.”
In theory, super PACs are independent of the candidates they support, prohibited by FEC rules to coordinate with campaign teams on strategy and spending. The reality is that those rules have been rendered essentially meaningless. “These outside committees are being run by trusted advisers, former chiefs of staff and former campaign managers of the candidates,” said Gross. “If competent people are running those operations, you don’t really need to communicate with the campaign about what they need or want.”
Mike Murphy is a veteran media consultant and one of Jeb Bush’s closest political confidants. Murphy worked with Bush on both his successful gubernatorial races and played a significant role in dissuading political operatives from committing to GOP rivals in the run-up to Bush’s launch of his exploratory campaign in December. When Bush officially announced his candidacy in June, Murphy didn’t sign on with the campaign team. Instead, he took the reins of the Right to Rise super PAC, which has accounted for 90 percent of Bush’s fundraising total.
In a June conference call with super PAC donors, two days after Bush launched his campaign, BuzzFeed reported that Murphy talked about upcoming advertising plans and the demoralizing effects their fundraising tally would have on GOP rivals. BuzzFeed quoted him as saying that while he “can’t coordinate anymore” with the campaign, he was “well informed as of a week ago.” Murphy then proceeded to give a broad overview of the Bush campaign’s strategy for the summer and how the work of the super PAC would reinforce those efforts.
Super PACS dominate in 2016 campaign financing
Bush isn’t alone in stocking his super PAC with longtime advisers. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s former campaign manager and chief of staff Keith Gilkes has taken a position with Walker’s Unintimidated super PAC. Rand Paul’s longtime political adviser Jesse Benton is a top consultant for Paul’s America’s Liberty super PAC. Benton was recently charged with covering up illegal campaign payments while working for Ron Paul in the 2012 election.
While having a political ally run your super PAC still observes the letter if not the spirit of the no-coordination rule, direct lines of communication between campaigns and super PACs have flourished via the Web and social media. One method by campaigns involves sharing internal polling data by posting it to a temporary, obscure Twitter account that only a few super PAC staffers know about — a tactic that CNN reported being used in last year’s midterm congressional races. Posting to the secret Twitter account technically makes the information public and thus legal for a super PAC to use.
Some candidates get their messages across to super PACs more brazenly by posting memos detailing their needs for TV and digital ad buys right on their websites. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., went so far as to post al 30-second ad script on her official website.
Correct the Record, a pro-Clinton super PAC, raised eyebrows in May when it publicly proclaimed it could legally coordinate with the Clinton campaign on political ads. It argued that it was exempt from FEC rules barring coordination on paid TV and radio advertisements because it would produce only online ads that require no payment for airtime. A complaint filed with the FEC charging that such ads constitute an in-kind contribution and are thus illegal has been met with no response from the agency.
The establishment of what are essentially shadow campaigns with unlimited fundraising power and few meaningful regulations causes concern among good-government groups. With super PACs taking on everything from grass-roots efforts like voter data collection and analysis to planning nationwide media ad-buying strategies, many see a perversion of the democratic process.
“Super PACs have become almost extensions of the campaigns,” said Viveca Novak of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks campaign spending. “The fact that these groups can raise unlimited money … means the biggest donors become all the more important to the candidate. When candidates are listening to the biggest donors, they’re not listening to the average voter.”