How Super are Super PACs?

Ranging From the Powerful to the Subtle to the Absurd

How Super are Super PACs?
August 19, 2015

Whether you love or hate Super PACs, they are clearly going to be a driving force in the 2016 presidential election as well as elections in the foreseeable future. What are these Super PACs and why have they taken such a prominent role in campaign financing?

PACs, or political action committees, have been around since the 1940s. These funding mechanisms can be affiliated with a candidate, but there are limits on contributions, just as there are with individuals. However, the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United V. Federal Election Commission opened the door for the existence of Super PACs with its "corporations are people" logic — the government cannot prohibit independent spending of corporations and unions for political purposes. Further rulings established that if the spending is independent of candidates, it could not be limited.

Thus we have today's Super PAC — an organization that cannot directly contribute to a candidate or coordinate with his or her campaign, but can have the same effect through the advertising that it buys through independent spending. Super PACs must disclose their donors, in theory ensuring transparency. In practice, a corporate name does not always reveal who is really driving the donations.

Estimates of the total Super PAC spending on this cycle is as high as $2 billion, dwarfing direct campaign contributions and non-profit 501(c)(4) campaigns (the previous preferred choice of large contributors). The connections between Super PACs and candidates are so strong that virtually all analyses of candidate's war chests include them in the campaign totals, along with direct campaign contributions and 501(c)(4) non-profits.

The July 31st filing on PACs in this election cycle revealed some mind-boggling numbers. Here is a sampling.

  • Bush Tops Them All – Jeb Bush held off declaring for candidacy in order to raise tons of Super PAC money — as an undeclared candidate, he was able to have more direct interaction with his Super PAC. Bush's plan succeeded, as his Right to Rise Super PAC raised a staggering $103 million. That is a full seven months before the primaries begin in February 2016. $17 million of that total came from business entities.

  • Cruz's Big Donors – Bush may have the most money, but Senator Ted Cruz has the top individual donations. Cruz's Keep the Promise I Super PAC received $11 million — the same amount as Chris Christie's entire Super PAC — from Robert Mercer of hedge fund fame, while private equity investor Toby Neugebauer gave another $10 million to a different Cruz Super PAC. Cruz has four of the top five largest contributions, with two others at $5 million.

  • Million-Dollar Donors – Mercer and Neugebauer are not alone. Fifty-two donors had given at least $1 million as of July 31st, with twenty-four of those going to Right to Rise. Hillary Clinton's Priorities USA Action PAC is a distant second with 8 million-dollar-level donors.

  • Large Percentage Donors – Walker and Huckabee have larger proportional donors. $9.9 million of Walker's $20 million total in his Unintimidated PAC comes from Diane Hendricks (Afton, WI) and Marlene Ricketts (Omaha, NE). A staggering 86% of Huckabee's Pursuing America's Greatness PAC comes from Ronald M. Cameron of Little Rock, AR — $3 million of a $3.6 million total.

  • No Sanctioned PAC for Democrat Sanders or Republican Trump – While Socialist Bernie Sanders and conservative Donald Trump might not agree on many things, both have publicly stated that they will not lobby for campaign funds or be affiliated with Super PACs. The Donald famously said, "I don't need anybody’s money…I don't care. I’m really rich." Sanders, on the other hand, has made campaign finance reforms one of his strongest platforms stating, “Unless we end this disastrous campaign finance system, our government will continue to represent the interests of the few at the expense of the many.” Some of their respective supporters have, however, created unaffiliated Super PACs for them, regardless of this rhetoric. Four have been created for Trump (at the time of this writing), while one has so far been created for Sanders, called “Billionaires for Bernie.”

Other PAC information can be found at the Sunlight Foundation website, among other Internet watchdog sources.

While Super PACs are serious campaign business and a near-requirement for higher office now, other Super PACs are formed for essentially non-political reasons — to make a satirical point, or just for fun. Comedian Stephen Colbert brilliantly created the Super PAC "Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow" during the 2012 campaign to mock the effect of Super PACs and point out the loopholes that make them de facto unlimited spending campaign vehicles, even as candidates were busy exploiting them — almost in real time.

Colbert's sign-off page still exists, featuring a tribute to his late advisor Ham Rove (an actual ham with glasses), who "repeatedly tripped and fell on a knife several dozen times" and was "eaten by dogs".

For those who prefer silliness to satire, try Tom Sherman of DeKalb, Illinois. Sherman recently formed a Super PAC to address the gravest concern we face as a society — literally. Sherman formed the Zombie Apocalypse Super PAC, which is dedicated to one extremely important question: "What role does government have in the zombie apocalypse?"

Sherman's Super PAC has a website and a Facebook page, but no responses yet from the candidates. With 22 candidates between the two major parties (and 85 if you count every individual that has filed paperwork), there are probably one or two zombies among them already. Can you spot the political "Walking Dead?"

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