TOPICS > Politics

How Big Money Super PACs are Reshaping the GOP Race

January 17, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
In the wake of a Supreme Court decision lifting restrictions on some campaign contributions, super PACs have spent $26 million this election cycle. Gwen Ifill discusses big money's impact on the political landscape with John Dunbar of the Center for Public Integrity and Robert Kelner of the Covington & Burling law firm.

GWEN IFILL: The five remaining Republican presidential candidates were back on the trail in South Carolina today, following last night’s raucous debate.

Frontrunner Mitt Romney may have been everyone’s favorite target last night in Myrtle Beach, but by the time he returned to the campaign trail this morning, his focus was elsewhere.

MITT ROMNEY (R): The president says he wants to fundamentally transform America. I don’t want to transform America into something we wouldn’t recognize. I want to restore to America the principles that made us the great nation we’ve been.

GWEN IFILL: According to the latest Washington Post/ABC News national poll, Romney is leading all comers 2-1. But his closest challenger, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, told supporters at a separate campaign stop today that Romney is not conservative enough to take on the president.

NEWT GINGRICH (R): Look at the polling. I’m the only conservative who realistically has a chance to be the nominee. So any vote for Santorum or Perry in effect is a vote to allow Romney to become the nominee, because we have got to bring conservatives together in order to stop him.

GWEN IFILL: Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, making his own bid for South Carolina’s conservatives and evangelicals, is also making that comparison in this new television ad.

NARRATOR: Why would we ever vote for someone who is just like Obama, when we can unite around Rick Santorum and beat Obama?

GWEN IFILL: The growing intensity was on display last night in the debate sponsored by FOX News and The Wall Street Journal, which was punctuated with audience cheers and jeers.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry won the crowd over by defending states’ rights.

GOV. RICK PERRY, R-Texas: I’m saying also that South Carolina is at war with this federal government and with this administration.


GWEN IFILL: And moderator Juan Williams was booed when he asked Gingrich if comments he made criticizing the president could be considered racially insensitive.

JUAN WILLIAMS, moderator: You saw some of this during your visit to a black church in South Carolina, where a woman asked you why you refer to President Obama as “the food stamp president.” It sounds as if you are seeking to belittle people.


NEWT GINGRICH: Well, first of all, Juan, the fact is that more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history.


GWEN IFILL: Texas Congressman Ron Paul was drowned out when he made the case for a less interventionist foreign policy.

REP. RON PAUL, R-Texas: I would say that maybe we ought to consider a golden rule in foreign policy. Don’t do to other nations. . .


REP. RON PAUL: . . .what we don’t want to have them do to us.

GWEN IFILL: But Romney came under particular fire on money issues. When pressed, he said he may release his income tax returns in April. He told reporters today that would show he pays close to 15 percent of his income in taxes.

Still, much of the campaign’s sharpest criticisms this cycle have come not from the candidates themselves, but from independent political action committees called super PACs. All five remaining candidates are getting help from the free-spending outside groups, and some are chafing at the attacks they have launched.

Last night, Santorum said, the pro-Romney PAC Restore Our Future falsely accused him of supporting a bill that would allow felons to vote from prison.

MITT ROMNEY (R): I did not have a super PAC run an ad against you. That’s — as you know, that’s something which is completely out of the control of candidates.

One of the things I decried in the current financial system that gets behind campaigns is that we have these voting requirements that put these super PACs in power that say things we disagree with.

RICK SANTORUM (R): What he’s saying is that the — the ad that says that I said that — or I voted to allow felons to vote is inaccurate. And it is inaccurate. And if I had something — a super PAC that was supporting me that was inaccurate, I would go out and say, “Stop it,” that you’re representing me and you’re representing my campaign. Stop it.


GWEN IFILL: And Gingrich, who dropped in the polls after the same PAC aired ads attacking him in Iowa, said the Romney group twisted his record on abortion.

NEWT GINGRICH: Well, this is typical of what both Senator Santorum and I have complained about with Governor Romney’s super PAC, over which he apparently has no influence, which makes you wonder how much influence he’d have if he were president.


MITT ROMNEY: Speaker Gingrich, I — I already said at our last debate that anything that’s false in PAC ads, whether they are supportive of me or supportive of you should be taken often the air and fixed. I have already said that.

But if we’re talking about Super PAC ads that are inaccurate, Mr. Speaker, you have a Super PAC ad that attacks me.

Now, just hold on. That attacks me. It’s probably the biggest hoax since Big Foot. The people who have looked at it…


GWEN IFILL: Romney ended that exchange by saying he hopes super PACs, which are not allowed to directly coordinate with candidates, would disappear. But Romney once raised money for the group and said today they operate within the law.

MITT ROMNEY: The law as it exists today establishes these. I wish that law were not as it is. I wish we could just raise money for our campaigns, instead of having to create super PACs.

GWEN IFILL: The campaign finance debate has even spilled over into late-night comedy. Humorous Stephen Colbert formed his own super PAC, and promptly established an arm’s-length relationship with it by handing over the reins to Jon Stewart.

Super PACs came into being two years ago, when the Supreme Court ruled that outside groups could raise unlimited sums for campaigns. They’ve since changed the face of campaign finance. This election cycle, the committees have already spent $26 million, half of it in just the last two weeks, as the campaign picked up speed in Iowa, New Hampshire and especially South Carolina.

According to totals compiled by the Center for Public Integrity, pro-Romney groups have led the way, spending $9 million, mostly on television ads. Pro-Gingrich groups have spent nearly $4.5 million, and another committee supporting Rick Perry has spent nearly $4 million, but little of it since Jan. 1.

Groups backing Ron Paul have spent more than $3 million, and pro-Santorum forces have spent $1.7 million.

For more on the super PAC phenomenon, we’re joined by John Dunbar, managing editor of the Center for Public Integrity, which has been tracking the spending, and attorney Robert Kelner of the Covington and Burling law firm. He advises super PACs and large campaign donors.

So, how much — I just said this has changed the landscape. Looking at the numbers that you’ve compiled, John Dunbar, has it?

JOHN DUNBAR, Center for Public Integrity: Yes, it’s certainly changed the landscape. It’s changed the debate. And it’s changed the tone of the debate.

If you look at the two big super PAC controversies, the first is the negative attacks on Gingrich in Iowa. There’s no question that that had an impact in Iowa. Whether it was increased coverage of Gingrich’s record or the Super PACs, either way, it may have had an amplifying effect.

Reporters started covering what was claimed in the super PAC ads. And it also allowed Romney to stay above the fray. He could run get-to-know-me commercials while the super PAC did — basically did the dirty work.

GWEN IFILL: Robert Kelner, how different is this than last time or any other cycles we have seen in the past?

ROBERT KELNER, Covington and Burling: I don’t think it’s really as different as many people have suggested, Gwen, because we’ve always had outside groups raising large amounts of money from wealthy donors to buy advertising time.

One difference now, after the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case, is that a good bit of that money is publicly disclosed because it’s through these so-called super PACs that are required to disclose their spending. But there’s a lot of other spending that is undisclosed, that is under the radar line that has always existed that still exists today.

So, to some extent, I think the focus on super PACs is because that’s what we can see.

GWEN IFILL: But we can see what they’re spending it on. But can we see who is spending it? Who is behind these?

JOHN DUNBAR: Well, we will find out on Jan. 31 who is behind these super PACs, because there are disclosure requirements. Unfortunately, by Jan. 31, the race for Republican nomination might be over.

But, you know, in addition to the amount of money that’s out there that we don’t know about, the super PAC money is important because it allows for something called express advocacy, which means that it’s a very — it’s the most aggressive kind of political speech. You can go out and say vote against or vote for this person, as opposed to some of the other kinds of money, which we can remember the 527 groups, organizations like that, which would just do issue ads, which were sort of very vague actually.

GWEN IFILL: But we kind of knew who the 527 groups were supporting, didn’t we, anyway?

JOHN DUNBAR: Well, we did eventually. And the IRS actually started requiring some disclosure.

On the other part, on the disclosure side, we will find out who is behind the super PACs. Fortunately, for people who want to know who is spending all its money, all the presidential super PACs have been super PACs, have not been nonprofits. We’re not going to have that same issue with the nonprofit groups which can also make these same kinds of ads, but they don’t have to disclose their donor.

GWEN IFILL: Like unions, for instance?

JOHN DUNBAR: Well, like — more like what they call social welfare organizations. These are 501(c)(4)s. Probably the best known is the Crossroads GPS is a (c)(4).

GWEN IFILL: So does it matter whether we know who these people are who are writing the checks? We know that Newt Gingrich’s campaign was foundering. And he got a $5 million infusion from a casino mogul, which is the term they use to describe Sheldon Adelson in Las Vegas.

We have heard about Jon Huntsman’s father pouring money into his, to no great avail in the long run. Does it matter? We know that Mitt Romney’s outside major super PAC is being run by former aides of his. And he’s actually raised money for it. So, does that count?

ROBERT KELNER: I don’t think it matters that much.

My view is that, the more things change, the more they stay the same in campaign finance. We have always known there were big donors behind candidates. We have generally known who they were. They used to be called bundlers. They’re still called bundlers in some respects.

But it remains the case that there’s a huge amount of activity that takes place outside the public eye under the radar line. That’s as true this election cycle as it was in the past.

GWEN IFILL: But explain what you mean by that. When you say there’s a — is the same pot of money that is just moving into a different definition?

ROBERT KELNER: I think that’s about right. I think what we see happening is these super PACs are very much a focus of public attention. They’re very much in the public eye. They disclose their donors.

But then there are all these groups that John is referring to, 501(c)(4) organizations, other kinds of specialized vehicles that are not required to disclose their donors and that do a lot of the non-broadcast activities, the so-called ground war activities, in some way, some of the real nuts and bolts of the political process. And it’s largely invisible to the media and to the public.

GWEN IFILL: So, are campaigns then spending their money differently? Are they spending more on television, more on these invisible — direct mail, things we don’t see easily?

JOHN DUNBAR: Well, apparently, they’re spending — not spending — I don’t know if they’re spending more on the ads. Election cycle to election cycle, It’s hard to say because they just keep getting so much more expensive. It’s almost like you have to decide on inflation.

But the super PACs are definitely spending more on advertising than the campaigns or the candidates themselves.

GWEN IFILL: This is not exclusive to Republican campaigns, is it?

JOHN DUNBAR: Well, this is the first Republican primary that we have had under the Citizens United-SpeechNow regulatory regime.

We did get midterm elections, which we got to see how this was going to shake out. But this is the first time that we have actually seen a presidential election occur…

GWEN IFILL: But there’s a Democratic group that is supporting President Obama, his former aides, right?

JOHN DUNBAR: Sure. Yes, absolutely. And they have already run some ads against Mitt Romney which made news because they seemed to make the pick for — of the Republican nominee.

GWEN IFILL: That’s who they have chosen to pick the fight with.


GWEN IFILL: Now, we have heard that — we saw a Pew study today that showed that more than half of Americans are aware now of campaign finance, usually not a very accessible topic.


GWEN IFILL: All of a sudden, they’re aware of this. And most of the people, two-thirds of those people, think it’s a negative. Is this a negative?

ROBERT KELNER: The super PACs, I think, are a positive because they actually increase the disclosure in the system. I don’t think most Americans appreciate that.

I think if you did a poll to figure out how many people understand that super PACs have to identify your donors, you would find most people don’t understand that fact. So it’s actually a net plus to the system if you believe in disclosure.

GWEN IFILL: Is it a net plus?

JOHN DUNBAR: If you think — if you believe that unlimited amounts of money by individuals, corporations and labor unions that are actually not disclosed by the time you go to the polls are a good idea, then it’s a plus.

GWEN IFILL: Well, a lot of people would say that that it is a plus then, because you’re — you’re talking about the timing of the disclosures.

JOHN DUNBAR: Well, it’s not just the timing of the disclosures.

It’s also the fact that you have to take these — there were two court decisions and you have to take them together. And, combined, what they did was allow for corporate — unlimited corporate contributions to a group, in this case a nonprofit, if you will, that can make these expenditures.

You will never find out who made the donation to the nonprofit. We haven’t seen that yet in the presidential campaign. We haven’t seen any nonprofits form. It has been all super PACs. But even the donations to the super PACs themselves aren’t necessarily clear. They can be shell corporations. Like, for instance, there was one that went to Restore Our Future that was from a Bain executive. So even the money coming in, when it’s disclosed, isn’t necessarily. . .

GWEN IFILL: Is there a trickle-down effect possible here? That is to say, we’re paying attention to the presidential race now, but this would affect other federal campaigns as well.

ROBERT KELNER: Absolutely, not just federal, state and local.

You are going to see later this year super PACs at every level, federal, state and local, in gubernatorial races, in state assembly races, in judicial races, on both sides of the aisle. This is a pretty dramatic phenomenon. And as I said, it’s actually going to create much broader disclosure of political activity than we have had in previous cycles.

GWEN IFILL: Is it also going to create a lot more negativity, since we have seen some of the ways in which this money has been used to do the dirty work for campaigns who no longer have to do it themselves?

JOHN DUNBAR: Well, not necessarily. According to the numbers so far, you know, the — Restore Our Future was very negative. Maybe $100,000 out of $8 million-plus has gone to pro-Romney ads.

GWEN IFILL: That’s what I mean I guess.

ROBERT KELNER: Well, I think in every election cycle, we hear there’s a tremendous amount negative advertising and negativity.

And each time, there’s a different explanation for it. I think the super PACs are running negative ads. But you would have seen those ads from non-super PAC entities as well. It has more to do with the politics than it does with the campaign finance system.

GWEN IFILL: Robert Kelner and John Dunbar, thank you both very much.

JOHN DUNBAR: Thank you.