What is a Super PAC and What is it Doing to Politics?

With every election cycle comes copious amounts of donations to presidential candidates and their campaigns. These donations come from various sources, like interest groups or citizens. But the latest focal point of the American political conversation surrounding campaign donations has been super PACs (Political Action Committees) and their potential influence over candidates.

Super PACs are organizations that focus their goals on getting a specific political candidate elected to office. There are no limits on the funds that super PACs can raise. Donors, such as corporations and labor unions, as well as individual non-affiliated donors, are allowed to give as much money as they would like to super PACs, therefore enabling the super PAC to provide unlimited funding to any candidate of their choosing.

These organizations are not officially affiliated with the candidates and therefore are not allowed to coordinate with the candidates. According to the Federal Election Commission, super PACs cannot spend money “in concert or cooperation with, or at the request or suggestion of, a candidate, the candidate’s campaign or a political party.” This also means that they must make donations indirectly. These donations normally appear in the form of attack advertisements.

Dr. Melissa Gaeke, a political science professor at Marist College, said a part of her believes people and organizations should be able to contribute money political efforts, but she also worries about the influence that the money creates when the money is donated in millions of dollars.

The law requires super PACs to report their donors in order to provide a sense of transparency, but it is easy for individual donors to hide behind other corporations. Additionally, certain classifications of non-profit groups are not required to disclose their donor list.

“If people can hide behind donating to super PACs in a way that doesn’t make their agenda so explicit, I think that’s problematic.” said Dr. Gaeke.

Super PACs came into prominence in January 2010 when the ruling of the Supreme Court case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, prevented the government from putting limits on the electoral spending of corporations and unions. This ruling declared that corporations are people and putting limitations on individual and corporation election contributions was a violation of the first amendment.  

“I think it’s had a major impact,” Dr. Lee Miringoff, Director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, said of the Citizens United decision. “I think it’s forced the return of money being center stage to American politics.”

Due to this Supreme Court decision, the 2012 presidential election was the first to prominently feature super PACs. The New York Times articles on Campaign Money report that in the 2012 race, $15.4 million was raised from super PACs.

“[Citizens United] really opened the floodgates for the dominance of money in politics,” said Dr. Miringoff.

According to the Washington Post, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has pledged not to accept donations or help from super PACs. The majority of his funding has come from donations of individual citizen donors.

“I think it’s pretty principled and I think that’s his appeal,” said Dr. Lynn Eckert, another political science professor at Marist College, regarding Sander’s stance against super PACs. She added that she thinks his consistent and principled message is the reason he has so many intensely dedicated supporters.

According to the New York Times Campaign Money Report, as of September 30th, more than 88% of monetary contributions to Sanders were achieved from individual donations of $200 or less. Sanders is an advocate for individual donations and has advertised his donations sites at debates.

According to The Street, all of the Democratic candidates have made statements and taken positions against the Citizens United ruling. However, despite her opposition to the ruling, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton acknowledges that she herself is affiliated with several super PACs.

Republican candidate Donald Trump is also denying super PAC contributions due to his ability to finance himself and his wish to not be influenced by this money. Trump has received 72% of his fund from donations under $200, similarly to Sanders.

As of late October, Trump had nine super PACs in his name. However, he requested these groups be shut down. According to the Washington Post, Trump’s campaign counsel sent letters to these super PACs asking them return all received donations. The letters state, “The campaign has never received money from your PAC, nor does the campaign want any money, services or goods from your committee.”

In terms of the voters’ feelings on super PACs and the role money plays in elections, Dr. Eckert said, “I think it has the effect of alienating people further from politics. They think it’s a dirty game; there’s unfairness. They tend to think that politicians don’t speak their minds and that they’re influenced by this money.”

“Bottom line is, Super PACs are really important,” said Dr. Miringoff.

According to the campaign money report in the New York Times, $277.8 million has been raised, in total, so far through super PACs for the 2016 presidential election.

Featured image courtesy of http://brainsandeggs.blogspot.com

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