TOPICS > Politics

Outside Super PACs Poised to Dominate 2012 Spending

October 17, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
When it comes to financing presidential campaigns, the money raised by individual candidates may count less in the 2012 election than past contests. Gwen Ifill discusses the potential might of the new super PACs with Tara Malloy of the Campaign Legal Center and the Heritage Foundation's Hans von Spakovsky.
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GWEN IFILL: Now to campaign politics and how outside spending might shape the 2012 election like never before.

When it comes to financing presidential campaigns, an entirely new playbook is being written. The traditional yardstick, the money raised by individual candidates, may count less this time. Instead hundreds of millions of dollars may come from a relatively new political animal, the super PAC. The financing vehicle sprang up in the wake of a 2010 Supreme Court decision, Citizens United, which wiped away limits on corporate and labor union campaign spending.

A candidate’s ability to raise money on his or her own does still count for a lot. Financial reports released this weekend show Texas Gov. Rick Perry outpacing his Republican rivals, hauling in more than $17 million for the third quarter. With $15 million in the bank, he put away half-a-million dollars more than former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who pulled in $14 million during the same period.

No other major GOP contenders raised as much. Ron Paul was next with more than $8 million, but the rest raised substantially less and also had far less cash on hand.

As for the man they all hope to replace, President Obama brought in nearly $43 million last quarter. And by the end of September, the incumbent Democrat had $61 million in the bank, more than all the Republicans combined. Some of that will likely be spent responding to attack ads from the new super PACs, like this one from the conservative group American Crossroads airing in North Carolina and Virginia.

NARRATOR: He raised our hopes. He seemed to understand.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The last thing you want to do is to raise taxes in the middle of a recession.

NARRATOR: But, today, he’s different.

GWEN IFILL: But Democrats are getting in on the big money action, too. This anti-Romney Web video was released earlier this month by Priorities USA, a super PAC run by former Obama staffers.

NARRATOR: Mitt Romney may have no experience fighting terror, but he does have some experience with foreign countries — sending our jobs to them.

GWEN IFILL: The messages may be familiar ones, but the money fueling them could reshape the political landscape next year.

Joining me now to discuss this new landscape, Tara Malloy, associate legal counsel for the Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit organization that favors tightening regulations on campaign spending, and Hans von Spakovsky, senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, which opposes the new regulations. He’s also — which opposes new regulations — he’s also a former member of the Federal Election Commission.

Since I almost got your position wrong there, Mr. van Spakovsky, let me start with you and ask, is it really going to change the landscape? Am I overreaching when I say that?

HANS VON SPAKOVSKY, Heritage Foundation: Well, I think there is going to be more money spent on the election, but, you know, we get more money spent on every election. That’s a long-term trend.

I think in the long run, it’s actually going to be a wash, because you have liberal organizations and conservative organizations raising money basically to oppose each other. And, look, no matter how much money you have getting your message out, if voters don’t like the message you’re giving, you’re still not going to win an election.

GWEN IFILL: Tara Malloy, it feels like we have these conversations every couple years. Each time, it’s about more and more money being spent in new ways. Is it — is that really so? Or are we just funding a new way around new regulations?

TARA MALLOY, Campaign Legal Center: I think that Citizens United was certainly a game-changer.

It is true that we have seen an upward trajectory for spending in elections over each election cycle. However, we can even just look at the 2010 elections. We saw a four-fold spike in independent spending between 2006, the last midterm election, and 2010, the first midterm election following Citizens United.

So although we see an upward trajectory in spending, we do not usually see it quadruple. And certainly many, many commentators think that 2010 was simply a dress rehearsal for 2012, that this is when corporations, unions and other big players who are trying to exploit the Citizens United decision will really come into the fore.

GWEN IFILL: When we talk about super PACs, the term itself sounds sinister. Who is behind it? And why are they different from regular PACs?

HANS VON SPAKOVSKY: Well, the super PAC is a term to describe the new independent-expenditure-only committees that could form. Basically, the Citizens United decision said that labor unions and corporations could spend unlimited amounts of money independently of candidates to convince voters to vote for or against someone.

GWEN IFILL: Without coordinating with the candidates.

HANS VON SPAKOVSKY: Without coordinating with the — yes, that’s a very important point.

So these super PACs have been formed because they can raise money, you know, not just from individuals which is what PACs, political action committees, could do, but they can raise it from labor unions and corporations also. So there’s a lot of money there that can be raised and spent on independent advertising and other things like that.

GWEN IFILL: Is this just spending on advertising? It’s not spending in any other way to support a candidate?

TARA MALLOY: I think that you’re going to see a lot of dispute about how much these super PACs, these ostensibly independent committees, are tied or are not tied to individual candidates’ campaigns.

Again, in 2010, we saw some initial super PACs. For instance, American Crossroads, the Karl Rove-led group, was the largest. But they did seem to support multiple candidates. What we have seen in 2012 is candidate-specific super PACs arising. Almost every single candidate for the Republican presidential nomination now has their own super PAC.

And when you start seeing these type of connections between the candidates and these ostensibly independent groups…

GWEN IFILL: You said it twice, ostensibly independent.

TARA MALLOY: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: Do you have any evidence that there’s a connection?

TARA MALLOY: Well, I will say some of the factors that we are concerned about. First, these super PACs are often established and led by former staffers to the candidates. It might be a staffer. It might be a former chief of staff. That’s one connection.

Secondly, the Federal Election Commission, the agency that looks over campaign finance law, has allowed the candidates that are the beneficiaries of these ostensibly independent expenditures to actually do some large degree of fund-raising for these so-called independent groups. So we’re seeing a tighter and tighter nexus between the beneficiary of this independent spending and the so-called independent groups.

And this, of course, raises the specter of possible political influence and corruption.

GWEN IFILL: Hans von Spakovsky, does it make a difference if this money is spent, coordinated and uncoordinated, independent or ostensibly independent, from the campaigns if we know about it, if it’s all written down somewhere?

HANS VON SPAKOVSKY: Well, no, it does make a difference, because in fact, look, the FEC, the Federal Election Commission, has issued regulations, and the regulations govern when something is being coordinated.

And if a candidate is coordinating the messages that are being sent out by an independent group, that’s no longer an independent group. And, in fact, those — that kind of spending then can be attributed to the candidate. And there may be violations of federal law.

Independent expenditures have to be exactly that, independent. And that makes a big difference in whether or not it’s being coordinated or not.

GWEN IFILL: But if it’s candidate-specific, and the person running the super PAC worked six months ago for President Obama, say, isn’t that just a loophole? What’s the difference?

HANS VON SPAKOVSKY: Well, the difference is, again, if you look at the regulations, there has to be actual consultation and coordination between them.

I, as an individual, should not be barred just because I used to work for someone from then going out, if I think they ought to get elected, from getting other friends to help me and putting together an organization to help them, as long as I am not simply acting as an official surrogate of the campaign.

GWEN IFILL: Part of this rule means that you have to disclose. And, in fact, that has turned out to be some — a disincentive for some corporations to want to form these super PACs. So isn’t that exactly as intended?

TARA MALLOY: Well, I think that another important point to make is that super PACs are not only the new beast on the scene.

Oftentimes, these super PACs are forming first a political committee, which, as you said, have to operate fairly transparently, but at the same time they’re creating a sister organization that is a nonprofit group that is far less regulated. And these nonprofit groups were already quite active in 2010. And what they have done is create a new vehicle that allows big donors to give to the nonprofit for general purposes, and then that nonprofit can spend up to 50 percent, it appears, of their money on explicit campaign ads.

And they never actually have to disclose their donors. So, the super PAC structure is often super PAC-plus, these even less accountable organizations. So there is a real concern that not only are we going to have unlimited spending, but we are going to have in many cases very anonymous spending, where we don’t know the true sources of the money.

GWEN IFILL: President Obama, as the incumbent, is clearly the big man on the block when it comes to a fund-raising so far. He put out an email today saying that he had a million small donors that were part of his big fund-raising haul that we talked about a moment ago.

So, if there are a million people out there still willing to write small checks, does that in any way counteract the effect of these big money super PACs?

HANS VON SPAKOVSKY: I think it does.

Look, he raised $750 million last time around. It was the largest amount that any presidential candidate had ever raised. And he basically overwhelmed his opponent with his campaign spending. I still think he’s probably — I think they’re aiming to raise a billion this year.

And I think that that in large measure will also help counter some of the money that’s raised against him. Plus, remember, there are going to be a lot of liberal organizations also raising money to try to help him get elected. I think, in the long run, like I said, I think it’s going to probably be a wash.

GWEN IFILL: Is it a wash? Do individual campaigns no longer have an edge?

TARA MALLOY: I think the problem is that it’s not simply a lot of money that’s being spent. It’s money coming from very few, concentrated sources.

A campaign finance reform group is not necessarily just concerned that there is more money, maybe millions more, being spent. It’s concerned that there are just certain donors that are able to give millions, sometimes tens of millions, to influence the elections. And, of course, the commonsense question arises, what do they expect in return for this type of money?

And this is the problem of corruption and the appearance of corruption that the Supreme Court has also respected as being a compelling reason to govern money in politics.

GWEN IFILL: Tara Malloy at the Campaign Legal Center, and Hans von Spakovsky of the Heritage Foundation, thank you both very much.

HANS VON SPAKOVSKY: Sure.

TARA MALLOY: Thank you.