While the Citizens United decision and the rise of big money and Super PACs had a huge effect on the 2010 midterm election, they don’t seem to be having as much of an impact on the current presidential primaries. Don’t get me wrong, there is even more money being spent this time, but it doesn’t seem to be having as much of an effect.
Exhibit A is Jeb Bush, whose Right to Rise Super PAC has aired a stunning $15.5 million in TV ads while his polling numbers sank.
Likewise, candidates who focused completely on raising lots of money through Super PACs, including Scott Walker and Rick Perry, have mostly dropped out of the race. The exception to this is Marco Rubio, but his rising star was largely fueled by two strong debate performances.
There are two, somewhat related reasons why Super PACs aren’t helping as much as they used to. First is because Super PACs are not allowed to coordinate with the campaign directly. So they cannot be used to build ground operations, pay employees, or organize campaign fundraisers. Which leaves them mainly paying for TV ads. Once upon a time, TV ads were the things that broke or made campaigns.
Which brings us to the second reason, which is that TV ads aren’t working as well as they used to. Part of this is because of sheer fatigue – right now, roughly half of all TV ads in Iowa are political. The advertising law of threes says that somebody has to see an ad three times before it has any effect on them, but after they see it three hundred times? But the main part is probably because of media changes. The rise of the internet means that people are watching more video online, rather than on broadcast TV or cable. Super PACs have been slow to adapt to this change. And finally, political campaigns get steep discounts on advertising, which are not available to Super PACs. A Super PAC typically pays four times as much per commercial as a candidate’s campaign does.
So, does this mean we shouldn’t worry about Super PACs? Not at all. Super PACs can still be a huge accessory to the main campaign, they are just not as effective on their own. When they are used as the campaign’s center of gravity (as they were for Walker or Perry) they fail. But they are still good at keeping a candidate alive in the lean times.
However, the main reason we should worry about Super PACs is because of their lack of accountability or transparency. The form of Super PACs called 501c4 do not have to disclose any information about their donors, and is now the second biggest overall TV ad spender. This means that our political candidates could be bought off by our country’s enemies and there is no way we would even know.
Maybe they already have been.