Whether you heard about it on CNN or from Stephen Colbert, chances are you’ve heard the term “Super PAC” thrown around this election season. Super PACs are a relatively new political phenomenon, created in July 2010 following the outcome of a federal court case known as SpeechNow.org v. Federal Election Commission, and this is the first presidential election to be influenced by them.
As with any new political influence, there are many questions surrounding exactly what Super PACs are and why they are important this year.
What’s a PAC?
PACs, short for political action committees, are organized for the specific purpose of raising and spending money to elect or defeat certain political candidates. Most PACs represent a business interest or popular issue, such as transportation, the healthcare industry, gun rights, or the environment. There are limits to how much money PACs can receive from any one individual, corporation, or association, as well as limits on how much can be donated to a candidate or party.
What Are Super PACs?
The “super” in Super PACs refers to the fact that they can receive unlimited donations from individuals, corporations, unions, and the like, and there are no restrictions on the amount they can spend in campaigning for or against certain political candidates. Super PACs still have to report their donors to the Federal Election Commission as a traditional political action committee would. And unlike traditional PACs, Super PACs cannot donate money directly to political candidates.
Officially, Super PACs are known as independent expenditure-only committees, because they cannot donate directly to a candidate or coordinate with a candidate to produce advertisements or materials supporting a campaign. Most Super PACs do manage to reflect the views of the candidate they support, however, and have played a large role this year in negative campaign ads attacking the various Republican contenders for the presidential nomination.
Why Are Super PACs Important?
As of March 27, 2012, there were 392 Super PACs reporting total donations of over $153 million. Most of the money raised by Super PACs is spent on political ads, which was an important factor in the recent Republican presidential primaries.
Before the South Carolina primary , Super PACs spent more than the candidates did on on TV advertising – $8.9 million to $5.6 million. Mitt Romney has received the most benefit, with over $40 million spent on his behalf by the Super PAC known as “Restore Our Future.” A Super PAC supporting Newt Gingrich spent more than $16 million on advertising, contributing to Gingrich’s surprising longevity in the primaries.
Who Funds and Runs the Super PACs?
Many Super PACs are led and run by former employees and campaign workers of the candidates they support, which makes it fairly simple to coordinate their messages without directly communicating with a candidate. The current biggest Super PAC, the Romney-supporting “Restore Our Future,” has received donations of up to $3 million from a single individual. The biggest contributor, Bob Perry of Perry Homes, was the major financial force behind “Swift Vets and POWs for Truth,” the political group focused on discrediting John Kerry during the 2004 presidential campaign.
The Super PAC supporting Gingrich, “Winning Our Future,” received upwards of $15 million from controversial Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam. Billionaire Foster Friess is credited with keeping Rick Santorum’s campaign alive through most of the primary season with nearly $2 million in donations to the Super PAC “Red White & Blue.” And while the majority of the attention on Super PACs has focused on the Republicans presidential hopefuls, the liberal “Priorities USA Action” received a considerable boost to the tune of $2 million from entertainment mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg.
Do Super PACs Matter to You?
Proponents of Super PACs argue that these committees have increased transparency in political campaigns, since donor information is public knowledge, and promoted free speech by enabling individuals and corporations to support whichever candidate they want with as much money as they can. The majority of voters, however, seems to think otherwise; a Pew Research Center poll in January reported that 65 percent of voters who had heard of Super PACs believed they had a negative effect on political campaigning. They may agree with detractors who say that by allowing for unlimited donations from individuals, Super PACs are in effect auctioning the democratic process off to the highest bidder.