< SuperPacs 2012: Off to the Races


Friday, November 04, 2011

BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week saw the first sprinkling of what is likely to be a deluge of campaign advertising from a gathering storm of cumulonimbus known as Super PACs. There's a pro-Obama Super PCA called Priorities USA, a pro-Romney Super PAC called Restore Our Future and a pro-Perry Super PAC called Make Us Great Again. Be afraid, very.

MAN: In the Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case last year, certain political action committees may now collect unlimited contributions, without disclosing the people.

WOMAN: It’s incomprehensible how much more screwed up it is now than it was before Citizens United.

WOMAN: It is inarguable that these organizations exist for no other purpose but to elect the candidates that they are associated with.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Super PACs were the direct result of the Citizens United decision, in which the Supreme Court held that the government can't stop corporations or unions from spending money to persuade voters. Super PACs may spend unlimited amounts of money, so long as they don’t directly coordinate with a candidate's campaign.

 The Karl Rove-linked Super PAC, American Crossroads, and its nonprofit partner Crossroads GPS have announced they plan to spend 240 million dollars in 2012, double what they’d first projected.

 This week in what’s seen as the start of the Super PAC TV ad downpour, Make Us Great Again began running pro-Perry TV ads in two key primary states, South Carolina and Iowa. And the pro-Obama Super PAC released some anti-Romney web ads.

 Peter H. Stone of the Center for Public Integrity says he expected the Super PAC ads would be especially negative, but the Perry ads are downright sunny, so far.

PETER H. STONE: One thing that struck people about the first ads was that they were softer and a little bit friendlier than people expected. [CLIP]:

ANNOUNCER: His dad was a tenant farmer, his wife a nurse. Rick Perry... [AD SOUNDTRACK UP AND UNDER]

PETER H. STONE: These were ads that basically tried to boost Perry's image by talking about his accomplishments in Texas:


ANNOUNCER: - manufacturing exports, passed major lawsuit reform…


PETER H. STONE: Many of the Super PACs are seen as having the ability to do more negative ads because they’re not formally connected.


ANNOUNCER: Make Us Great Again is responsible for the content of this ad.

PETER H. STONE: In fact, they're not legally allowed to be connected to the campaigns or the candidates in any way.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, but most of us who have been following this have the sense that there is barely an angstrom of space between these Super PACs and the campaigns, however technically they may be fulfilling the letter of the law.

PETER H. STONE: Many of these Super PACs have been set up by former close associates of the candidates. In the case of Perry, it was his former chief of staff and a long-time donor in Texas.

 The Romney Super PAC was started by three people who were connected to his last presidential bid.

And in the case of Obama, we have his former deputy White House spokesman, Bill Burton and a top White House aide, Sean Sweeney who started that one. So there’s that level of ties. There are also other ties. You have candidates who are allowed to go to fundraisers for –

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Super PACs that have no ties to their campaign.

PETER H. STONE: Exactly. The rule that the Federal Election Commission has written is yes, you can go to the Super PAC events, you can thank people for coming, you can ask them for limited contributions.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah, you can ask them for up to [LAUGHS] 5,000, but they can give as much as they want!

PETER H. STONE: Correct, correct. They can give 500,000 or a million, and many of these Super PACs are being fueled by donations on that order. But the candidate themselves is not allowed to ask for the unlimited amount of money.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why is it that that the Republicans are so far out in front of the Democrats in Super PAC fundraising?

PETER H. STONE: There are a couple of big reasons for that. One is that the Republican National Committee, which has long been a chief fundraising vehicle for Republicans, was in turmoil ‘cause its chairman, Michael Steele, alienated a lot of the big donors. And strategists like Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie realized they needed something else to help Republican candidates in 2010.

 That was even before the Supreme Court ruled on Citizens United. And together these two factors really helped get the Republican groups off the ground in a big way.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: But what about President Obama's criticism of the Citizens United decision? Do you think that set the Democrats back in Super PAC funding? Were they afraid that they would look hypocritical?

PETER H. STONE: They were concerned about the hypocrisy factor. And the White House had even quietly urged them not to start too many of these groups. They didn't have the kind of organizational problems that Republicans had. And they had unions too, who were always powerful allies and were powerful allies again last year.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: But now the Democrats do have Super PACs up and running, including Obama. Does this mean that the party has abandoned its principals or that the President has?

PETER H. STONE: It does open him up to hypocrisy charges. But they also say, look, the Republicans have done this. They won the last election, in part, because of their outside groups. And they justify it as they're not going to go into a major election year with one hand tied behind their backs.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Peter, thank you very much.

PETER H. STONE: It's been a pleasure.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Peter Stone is Group Leader for Money and Politics at iWatch News, which is part of the Center for Public Integrity.