New gangs in politics

There are some new gangs in our political neighborhoods called “super PACS” and they distorted the outcome in a number of states during the Republican presidential nomination campaign.

First, let’s briefly review how these new super PACS came into being. In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in the Citizens United case that corporations and unions deserved free speech rights, and, as Justice Kennedy said, campaign spending does “not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.” The result was that corporations and unions would be allowed to make direct contributions in political campaigns.

Shortly after that, the Circuit Court of Appeals found that because of the Citizens United decision “contributions to groups that make only independent expenditures cannot corrupt or create the appearance of corruption.” Therefore, they removed the limits on individuals, corporations or unions contributions to independent Political Action Committees.

Super PACs were born.

Super PACs’ impact was demonstrated immediately in the Iowa caucuses. On December 5, 2011, one month before caucus night, Newt Gingrich was gaining popularity nationally and was beating Romney in Iowa by 31% to 17% in the CBS/New York Times poll. Then the Romney Super PAC struck. It spent $335,000 the next week attacking Gingrich and Gingrich’s support fell to 27 . The next week it spent $779,000 and Gingrich fell to 25. The next week $663,000 and Gingrich fell to 14%.

By caucus night, Romney’s super PAC had spent $3.4 million and Gingrich’s super PAC less than $800,000. The Iowa Republican party announced that Romney was the winner, but the real news was that Romney’s super PAC money had reduced Gingrich from 33% of the vote to 13% in just one month of negative ads.

After Iowa, Gingrich dropped his “no negative ads” promise and his super PAC received $5 million from Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson. In South Carolina his super PAC matched the Romney super PAC almost dollar for dollar, and Gingrich was victorious.

Gingrich was confident. He was coming off a big win, and was tied with Romney in Florida with 10 days to go. “Overnight a storm rained dollars on the television,” said Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political scientist. According to the Wesleyan Media Project, Romney and his allies, especially his super PAC, aired 12,768 television commercials to just 210 by Gingrich and his supporters. The Wesleyan co-director said, “It’s one-sided domination. If you have a television on in Orlando or Fort Myers or West Palm Beach, you are seeing Romney ads and very few pro-Gingrich ads.” The final totals were Romney’s super PAC $17.4 million to just $9 million for Gingrich’s super PAC. Of this, Romney’s group spent $16 million in negative ads to only $3 million in negative ads by Gingrich’s.

Romney won Florida, and Gingrich’s campaign for president was over for all intents and purposes. No matter how you feel about Newt Gingrich, the process that destroyed him has to leave you queasy. He was destroyed by an entity running without contribution limits of any kind.

With Gingrich dispatched, the Romney super PAC turned its attention to former senator Rick Santorum.

When Santorum was gaining on Romney in his home state of Michigan, Romney’s Super PAC turned on the money ad spigot and preserved a narrow victory. It was the same story in pivotal Ohio. Romney’s super PAC ran 3,313 ads in the final 10 days as opposed to only 722 for the Santorum super PAC. Romney squeaked out victory by four-fifths of a percentage point.

It was fitting that super PACs should bring the campaign to an end. Santorum announced he was dropping out of the race two weeks before the primary in his home state of Pennsylvania, and right after Romney’s super PAC announced that they were about to spend $2.9 million in negative TV ads.

In the end Romney’s super PAC spent $40 million in unlimited contributions from corporations and individuals. Its TV ads were over 90% negative. Everything they did was totally legal.

Norm Ornstein, Resident Scholar at American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative-leaning think tank in Washington, D.C., summed it up best when he said about Justice Kennedy’s statement that there could be no corruption in independent spending, “What planet does he live on?”

I’m afraid we will have to live through this election year with super PACs as they now exist. Let’s just hope that after November, both parties will agree to end this threat to our system.

Originally published 26 April 2012 on