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The American Electoral Process in the Age of Super PACs

Updated on May 2, 2012


The upcoming 2012 US general election promises to be extraordinary in a few imperative respects.

For one, Barack Obama, the first African-American to ever occupy the office of President, will be seeking re-election and, consequently, an opportunity to further advance his liberal programmatic agenda.

Secondly, his Republican challengers will attempt a prodigiously daunting hat trick: retain/possibly expand or consolidate their control of the US House of Representatives while fighting to recapture both the White House and the US Senate.

But after all is said and done, the November 6 election may have a somber and far ignoble historical characterization: it may be heralded as the year that we saw the full advent of the Super PACs as a critical albeit subversive phenomenon in the American electoral process.

From what can be gleaned from the largely abbreviated presence of these Super PACs first during the 2010 mid-term election when they debuted and the fast-concluding Republican primaries contest, that these tertiary, loosely-monitored entities have the capacity, both in terms of their fund-raising and organizational abilities, to effectively impact the outcome of elections can hardly be denied.

As was the case several times during the Republican primaries, Super PACs have the notorious distinction of doing the grimy, surreptitious bidding of their benefactors by drawing on their stocky bank accounts to blanket the airwaves with some of the most vicious, negative advertising imaginable against opponents.

Super PACs emanated from two controversial US Supreme Court rulings that basically declared unions and corporations as entities with protected rights of access and participation in the electoral system, much like individual persons.

In Citizens United v Federal Election Commission, the Court in January 2010 held that the government may not prohibit unions and corporations from making independent expenditure for political purposes. Shortly afterwards, the DC Circuit of the Federal Court of Appeals, in Speechnow.org v FEC, further opined that contributions to groups that only make independent expenditures could not be limited in the size and source of contributions to the group.

Before being dubbed “Super PACs” by reporter Eliza Newlin Carney, these organizations were previously known as “independent-expenditure only committees.” Unlike traditional PACs, they could raise funds without legal limits from all sources (corporations, unions and other groups, as well as individuals) and generally have the free will to dispense of these funds in furtherance of causes and interests independent of any particular campaign, candidate or party.

The Center for Responsive Politics, an independent/non-partisan research group tracking money in U.S. politics and its effect on elections and public policy, reports that as of April, 2012, 449 groups organized as Super PACs had reported total receipts of $202,441,752 during the current election cycle.

Interestingly, most of the money raised thus far by these Super PACs has come not from corporations but from wealthy individuals.

From Sheldon Adelson, whose astounding $21.5 million cash donation to the Newt Gingrich-leaning Winning Our Future single-handedly saved Gingrich’s fledgling GOP presidential nomination bid at several critical points during the primaries process, to Harold Simmons, who dazzled the pro-Republican American Crossroads with a hefty $12 million cash donation, the floodgates of cash appear wide open.

Reflecting on the Republican primaries, a cursory analysis of the breakdown of the 30 super rich donors who gave $1 million or more to the Super PACs that were active during the contest shows some correlation between the resources each of these PACs had at its disposal and how well their candidates fared overall. The pro-Romney PAC, Restore Our Future, garnered 15 of these donations; handily dwarfing the pro-Santorum Red, White & Blue Fund (3) and pro-Gingrich Winning Our Future (2).

But with the primaries practically over and Mitt Romney widely recognized as the presumptive nominee for the presidential election, all die now appears cast.

It is reasonable to anticipate that, wishing not be caught flat-footed, Democratic billionaires will do their damndest to flush liberal-leaning Super PACs with new funds.

Republicans are, understandably, reluctantly but surely coalescing around Romney and fine-tuning and honing-in on long-standing conservative values/messages.

President Obama and Democratic leaders are priming for a showdown that would showcase Obama’s message of hope and fairness while cleverly highlighting the more stellar accomplishments of the last three and half years.

Given this country’s recent electoral history, it is without question that the viability of a political candidate or the degree to which an individual vying for public office is successful in waging a campaign is increasingly, diametrically determined by his/her ability raise large sums of money.

There is a general consensus among pundits that 2012 will likely be a record-setting year in terms of total funds raised and spent by political candidates at all levels of government.

For the presidential election, clearly the prized jewel atop the pyramid of all electoral contests, as of the end of March, Obama and Romney had raised $192 million and $87 million respectively.

When you factor in the hundreds of millions of dollars of future pledges and cash receipts for both candidates and their Super PACs between now and election day, it could undoubtedly balloon to a billion-dollar proposition!

Toward what end, need I ask? Does the presence of these huge bags of money really make for greater transparency or democratization in our political process? Or does it, to the contrary, needlessly hamstring, commercialize and cheapen it?

I think most people would agree that the arrival of the Super PACs, thanks to the Supreme Court, has, noticeably, immensely exacerbated a badly broken process.

Never before has American democracy been so patently “for sale” to the highest bidder. Elections have become a runaway cottage industry where pimping individuals and corporations with deep pockets jockey to get “their” men and women in the corridors of power for the sole purpose of directly impacting public policy. And, it does not appear that either the politicians on the receiving end of this largesse or news organizations in whose media markets these funds are spent have the will or capacity to save the system from further corrosion.

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    • shea duane profile image

      shea duane 6 years ago from new jersey

      The Daily Show did a skit on this issue... I don't have the answer. But I just wish people would act in the best interest of the nation and her people rather than their agendas. I know, I'm a dreamer!

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