PROJECT PAC BY AARON WESTENDORF
â€œGovernment is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.â€? -George Washington
PROJECT PAC Introduction Super Political Action Committees (Super PACs) are making a name for themselves in the 2012 election. The problem is the name they’re making for themselves won’t ever be on a ballot. Ever since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission (FEC) decision allowing the creation of Super PACs, names like Karl Rove, Bill Clinton and even Stephen Colbert have emerged on the same stage as Barack Obama and Mitt Romney because of the Super PACs they head. So what is a Super PAC? What was the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. FEC? What is a PAC? Will they actually matter in the 2012 election? Have they mattered in the past? Most importantly, do Super PACs have an effect on political communication and will they have an impact on the 2012 presidential election? Project PAC attempts to answer all of these questions and more. What began originally began as a research paper for my Political Communication (POCO) 401 class has evolved into much more. I found quickly in my research that I wasn’t the only one
struggling to find answers to many of the questions I had about PACs and Super PACs. What was even scarier to find was the amount of collegeaged adults, like myself, who vote in elections without even knowing what a PAC is. Rather than creating a more traditional research paper, I decided to create a more interactive paper, designed to relate and educate the college-aged demographic. In accordance to the grading rubric assigned by my POCO 401 class, Project PAC will be a complete analysis of my research. I have approached the project in a journalistic fashion by interviewing experts, analyzing the pulse of the public, and will conclude my research findings with my own personal editorial about how PACs affect the health of our democracy. It will be a narrative, editorial, magazine piece that is a research paper—if that even makes sense. Ultimately, if I can educate one person about Super PACs, and help them formulate their own independent opinion about Super PACs going into the 2012 election, I consider my research a success.
the instigator Stephen Colbert In a general sense, a PAC is an organized group of like-minded individuals that helps funnel money toward a candidate, or multiple candidates, that they believe best represents their interests. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the first PAC formed in 1944 when a group found a loophole in campaign finance law that could allow them to collect “voluntary” contributions from employees. Since then the law has allowed, but somewhat restricted PACs. Since 1944, there have been five different types of PACs created. All of which either are restricted in the amount of money they can give to a candidate, or are limited by their inability to be connected with a candidate. Contribution limits in a presidential election apply to individual donations, as well as PACs. An individual can only donate $2,500 to a candidate. PACs, depending on their status (if they donate to multiple candidates, or just one) can donate either $5,000 or $2,500. This allowed labor unions, organizations and lobbyists, just about anyone to donate with the same abilities as an individual voter. That all changed with the creation of Super PACs. A Super PAC can raise and spend an unlimited amount of money during a campaign but cannot contribute directly to a candidate. The Super
PAC was created after the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in Citizens United v FEC. Citizens United, a conservative non-profit organization, wanted to advertise its documentary Hilary: The Movie 30 days prior to the 2008 primary election. The movie had been produced after Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9/11 was released and allegedly advertised 60 days prior to the 2004 general election. At the time, advertising for Moore’s documentary received criticisms of being nothing more than “electioneering communications.” By law it is illegal for corporations and unions to advertise against a candidate 30 days prior to a primary election, and 60 days prior to a general election. The FEC found Moore not guilty of such electioneering communications, because it could not be proven that a corporation, or Moore himself, were making direct contributions to a candidate, even though the documentary appeared to be attacking a candidate, but rather was an independent documentary critical of the president. Citizens United used the 2004 ruling as a starting point for the justification of their documentary. The FEC ruled against Citizens United, and charged them with electioneering communications 30 days before a primary.
Claims filed against Citizens United stated that the documentary Hilary: The Movie was, “nothing more than an elongated version of a negative television spot.” Because Citizens United was a PAC, they were only legally allowed to make direct contributions of under $2,500 to a candidate. PACs, under the category of corporation or union, were not allowed to buy ad space against or for a particular candidate, or they would be guilty of electioneering communications. They believed, however, that like Moore’s documentary, their movie was fact-based and that they were entitled to the right of publishing it.
against your re-election.” Jonathan Alter, Newsweek senior editor, wrote the decision was the “most serious threat to American democracy in a generation.” Media personalities were becoming frustrated in the lack of public outcry. To them, it had seemed as if the Supreme Court had gotten away with murdering democracy. It wasn’t until a late night comedy show, attempting to expose what they believed to be injustice, began broadcasting against the creation of Super PACs. Suddenly a large audience was tuned in to the issue. Voters were slowly finding out that
“How you like me now, F.E.C? I’m rolling seven digits deep! I got 99 problems but a non-connected independent-expenditure only committee ain’t one!” -Stephen Colbert The issue quickly traveled through lower courts, each ruling in favor of the FEC accusing Citizens United of electioneering communications, until it reached the Supreme Court. Five of the nine Supreme Court justices ruled in favor of Citizens United, a PAC, being allowed to advertise political messages prior to an election. Super PACs had officially been created. Corporations, trade unions, and even politicians began hopping on the Super PAC bandwagon. These new Super PACs could raise an unlimited amount, and spend an unlimited amount of money on ads and solicitations, something that candidates can’t do. News outlets were finding any soapbox they could get their hands on, shouting out to anyone that would listen. The New York Times wrote, “The Supreme Court has handed lobbyists a new weapon. A lobbyist can now tell any elected official: if you vote wrong, my company, labor union or interest group will spend unlimited sums explicitly advertising
former politicians, like Karl Rove, were finding an opportunity to raise record amounts of money to fund campaign ads. These ads were aired on the same television programs as candidates’ ads, but were not from the candidates themselves. The large checkbooks of Super PACs, much larger than the candidates, could afford the ads. They could afford created ads for multiple races, against multiple candidates. A late night television personality, in a comedy format, had taught an audience what the New York Times could not. Stephen Colbert had captured the attention of the nation. He didn’t stop there. History was made and described by Colbert at his own press conference outside of the FEC building on June 30, 2011, when he announced the creation of his Super PAC “Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow” (ABTT): “Knock, knock.” The press replied, who’s there?
Stephen Colbert celebrates the announcement of his own Super PAC America for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow in front of the FEC building.
“Unlimited union and corporate campaign contributions.” Unlimited union and corporate campaign contributions, who? “That’s the thing, I don’t think I should have to tell you.” In one sarcastic blow to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, Colbert shed light on the darkest corner of campaign finance for the rest of America. Stephen Colbert was not creating his Super PAC in hopes of influencing the 2012 election. If he were, as President of ABTT he wouldn’t have spent its money campaigning for Herman Cain, a candidate already “dead” in the 2012 election. Rather, ABTT was established to help shed light on the world of campaign finance. Perhaps that is why ABTT’s finances are clearly posted for public record on their website. Perhaps that is why ABTT’s year-end financial report is published on their website. Perhaps that is also why ABTT clearly listed their abilities and restrictions for campaign contributions. Perhaps that is why ABTT published their official filing to the FEC to become a Super PAC. Perhaps that is why no other Super PAC makes a clear and
conscious effort to do the same. Colbert made history with his ABTT Super PAC, because no one else would have taken such drastic measures to understand, and explain to the country what a Super PAC was capable of. According to ABTT’s disclosure, it “may accept unlimited corporate contributions, unlimited individual contributions, unlimited labor-union contributions, and unlimited PAC contributions… Federal law requires ABTT’s best efforts to obtain and report the name, address, occupation, and employed of any individual who contributes more than $200 in a calendar year.” Listed above are the same abilities, and restrictions of all Super PACs, clearly stated on all of ABBT’s productions. Since its inception ABTT has raised $1,023,121.24, up until its year-end filing on January 30, 2012. None were more proud than the Super PAC’s own President, Stephen Colbert. In a Supplemental Memo attached to ABTT’s year-end financial disclosure report Colbert noted, “Yeah! How you like me now, F.E.C? I’m rolling seven digits deep! I got 99 problems but a non-connected independent-expenditure only committee ain’t one!”
the Watchdog Gregory Korte Gregory Korte accepted his dream job as a Washington reporter for USA Today in 2010, the same year as the Citizens United v FEC Supreme Court decision. His political journalism career began while working in the Washington Bureau of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, primarily covering the 1992 national party conventions. He would go on to be a City Hall reporter for five years, covering the 2001 and 2005 mayoral elections and the 2004 presidential campaign in Ohio for the Cincinnati Enquirer, before accepting his current position at USA Today. Korte is in the right spot at the right time for media coverage of Super PACs. “What is different this year than any other year is how Super PACs can collect an unlimited amount from just about anyone with money except foreign companies,” Korte said. “Instead of a CEO donating his or her money directly, a corporation can sign the check.” Every Super PAC must file its contributions and the donations it receives to the FEC. Korte’s responsibility assigned to him for researching Super PACs is to go through the FEC filings to find any potential discrepancies, or conflicts of interests. This is what free speech advocates label as the watchdog function of the media in a democracy.
This is the first step in writing an article. Other reporters working on the same story take Korte’s findings and ask the ‘why’ questions. “They’re looking at why would someone make a million dollar contribution toward a candidate,” Korte explained. “They want to know what is that donation buying them.” Already, Korte has been involved in many investigative articles involving Super PACs and the FEC for USA Today. Each of these reports doesn’t end with Korte’s analysis, but rather begin because of his instincts. His iPhone remained plugged into a charging source, most likely due to the amount of news updates, tweets, e-mails, texts and phone calls he received in a mere hour. Korte wasn’t being rude during our interview, while his phone maintained a constant vibration signaling a new alert. He was doing his job. Korte has to keep a pulse of what’s going on. If Obama announces his support for Detroit automakers, Korte has to review FEC filings for potential GM or Ford contributions. If Romney makes a statement about his laissez faire approach to the financial industry, Korte has to review FEC filings for potential loan executives donating to Romney’s Super PAC. It all is relevant. Korte, among others, is our watchdog. But it isn’t as simple as keeping a pulse on the
nation. Korte has had to form a grasp on the pulse of the campaign finance world too. “Aside from conflicts of interest we’re also looking for new donors,” Korte said. “Most people who donate to a Super PAC have donated to campaigns in some way before. If they haven’t there’s usually a reason why they are now.” Incentives to donate to a candidate, or their associated Super PAC, doesn’t necessarily implicate that there is something shady in the working. In fact, some major companies and executives donate because they have a relationship with the candidate. Korte explains that there are three major incentives for someone to donate money to a campaign: the donation is good for business and will benefit the donator somehow if that candidate is elected, the donation supports the donator’s ideological or political point of view, the donation is an expression of the donator’s relationship to the candidate ranging from friendship to actual blood relationship, or some variation of all three. Unfortunately for the watchdogs around Washington the answers aren’t always clear.
There have been issues with legitimacy within the filings. Addresses can be wrong, employment descriptions are vague, among various other issues that arise due to self-disclosure. This is not to say that a Super PAC is lying about where it got its money from, but it is to say that it’s a problem the FEC will need to address in the future. “To me its unacceptable if the information is wrong,” Korte said. According to FEC regulations for Super PACs, they are “required their best efforts to obtain and report the name, address, occupation, and employer of any individual who contributes more than $200 in a calendar year.” This is what makes Korte’s job difficult. When a Super PAC submits its filings to the FEC, Korte must read the document as-is. That means he cannot differentiate between the information that donors submitted themselves and the information the Super PAC had to research and report for their own legal purposes. This makes it impossible to assess blame and criticism for faulty information. “My impression is that disclosure has
Pictured above is a typical example of a Super PAC’s filing form to the FEC. Typically, the Super PAC will file all of the names of people and corporations who donated with the FEC the 20th of every month. It is Gregory Korte’s job to go through these documents to better understand who is funding specific Super PACs.
improved,” Korte admitted. “But sometimes self disclosure isn’t clean. I feel like we should expect PACs to be able to report accurate information.” The [FEC] reporting isn’t clean. It begs the question, if it weren’t for reporters following up these reports, and asking the questions about why an address doesn’t match for instance, would we even have a clear picture of what Super PACs are doing?” Despite what some might refer to as behindthe-scenes work, Korte has been able to make front-page observations. The largest implicated of those observations is the role Super PACs played in the Republican Primary. “They kept certain candidates around longer,” Korte observed. And who were those candidates? “Super PACs allowed Newt Gingrich to go further, maybe even Santorum.” In a USA Today article originally published April 21, 2012 by Fredreka Schouten, Christopher Schnaars and Gregory Korte, it was reported that Gingrich’s associated Super PAC, Winning Our Future, had received $18,856,189. More than $16 million of donations were crediting to a single source. Sheldon Adelson, Las Vegas casino owner, and his family were responsible for over 84% of money raised for Gingrich’s Super PAC. Why is this significant? Gingrich’s campaign had run out of money during the primary elections. According to campaign finance law, Adelson would have been only been allowed to donate a maximum of $2,500 to Gingrich’s campaign directly. However, Adelson was legally able to donate $16 million to a Super PAC that was running ads in primary states supporting Gingrich. “Legally they’re supposed to be separate and not coordinate,” Korte said. “Its really easy for a Super PAC to take notice of the same news the
rest of us are getting about the candidate, and from the candidate. All the Super PAC has to do is listen to the candidate’s message and give it a megaphone.” When the campaign had no money to advertise and influence votes, Adelson single-handedly kept the Gingrich campaign on life support in hopes of winning votes in primaries. And Gingrich is not the only candidate who falls under this example. Former campaign workers often leave campaigns to work for the associated Super PAC. The candidate and Super PAC can hire the same consulting firm to run their campaigns. Super PACs can even share the same office building as the candidate they support. Super PACs and candidates can currently partake in these activities while avoiding the law, which strictly prohibits coordination and cooperation between Super PAC and candidate, based on technicality. However, none of this is new to politics. As Korte stated, “Super PACs are new, but individual advocacy is not. Negative ads, money in politics, games to get around campaign finance restrictions, none of it is new. What is new is the large amount of money coming from a small amount of people, because of PACs.” The book has not been written on Super PACs, or even their involvement in the 2012 elections. It has yet to be seen if Super PACs will cancel out one another, if analysts determine a law of diminishing return in political campaigning, how much money will come from the newly labeled 1%, none of that can be determined yet. But when there is a page to be written, watchdogs like Gregory Korte will pick up their pens and begin to ask questions.
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the local man Ellsworth Holden Ellsworth Holden is currently Co-President for the League of Women Voters of Athens County. The League of Women Voters was created in the 1920s as an organization to help women, who had just recently received the right to vote in an election, educate themselves before going to the polls. Now, its modern day mission is to inform anyone, both men and women alike, about candidates and issues on the ballot. Self-admittedly, Holden knows his name is well known around the city of Athens, OH. His political career began in the 1980s when he was elected to Athens City Council. Since then, Holden has been the Chairman of the Republican Party in Athens County, served as moderator for Town Hall meetings, and now serves as the moderator for “Meet the Candidates” night, an event sponsored by the League of Women Voters. The guy knows his politics. One might say that Holden has seen, or heard it all. So what has he heard about PACs? “I hear great concerns of PACs and what they’re doing and it’s only in terms of fears for what the other party is doing,” Holden said. “It never includes how it benefits their own party.” When I sat down with Holden he quickly disclosed his background. He is a minority in town, a Republican living in a county that voted 67% Democrat in the 2008 election, but has adopted a
more bi-partisan role as of late due to his position within the League of Women Voters. Better put in his words, “I provide a unique perspective on things.” Holden maintains his traditional view of government; Congress makes the laws, the Executive enforces those laws and the Supreme Court interprets those laws. When the Supreme Court ruled in its 5-4 decision to allow corporations and trade unions the access to their own free speech during elections, Holden understood the decision. “That’s the role of the courts,” Holden said. “I trust the courts. I don’t make assessments or claims that they’re biased. One should not judge the courts on does their decision benefit me, or my party.” Anthony Kennedy, Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court since 1988 when President Ronald Reagan appointed him, wrote the majority opinion for the decision. Within the majority opinion contained the explanation that, “If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.” The understanding that free speech applies to citizens, and associations of citizens, as Kennedy stated, “that there was no principled way to
distinguish between media corporations and other corporations and that the dissent’s theory would allow Congress to suppress political speech in newspapers, on television news programs, in books and on blogs.” Much of the controversy surrounding the Citizens United v. FEC decision revolves around one party benefiting over the other, or fears that
vote. Elections, in their simplest form, are a competition. Those involved with elections, in any way shape or form, are seeking to access the largest opportunities to get their candidate the most votes. This includes finding funds, creating ads and even handing out yard signs. It is not illegal to sway peoples’ votes, and both parties should
“I hear great concerns of PACs and what they’re doing and it’s only in terms of fears for what the other party is doing. It never includes how it benefits their own party.” -Ellsworth Holden one day an election can be decided due to a overwhelming amount of money that one party can access. Holden sees things as an equal playing field. “The opportunity is identical,” said Holden. “In different times one party got a jump on the other to finding that exact opportunity, but that’s what campaigns are about. “I still like the idea of limiting the money in campaigns but it’s not practical. So instead we should quickly identify where the money is coming from and what it is being used for.” Holden spent most of his time while Chairman of the Republican Party strategizing, and seeking opportunities that potential candidates could take advantage of. It is something that almost every successful candidate must accomplish before winning the
have an equal right to those opportunities. “Raising [or spending] the most money is not what decides who wins. It’s all about who manages their campaign better,” Holden said. “There are many dimensions to look at in campaigns, from the Township level to the U.S. President.” Ultimately, money is factor but cannot decide an election. “The extra money [from PACs] doesn’t make a difference,” Holden said. “You begin to saturate your message. Yes, it might matter in a smaller campaign. But for President, you begin to see what economists refer to as diminishing returns.” What Holden notes is that although a Super PAC can contribute extra millions of dollars worth of advertisements people begin to stop listening. Simply buying more ads does not necessarily in return sway more votes.
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“After a certain point you begin to hit a wall,” Holden said. “There is no certain dollar amount for that wall, but I imagine we will hit in 2012.” As quick as Holden was to disclose his leanings and background, Holden was equally as eager to acknowledge that he hates what appears to be a partisan lens on most issues, including PACs. Holden represents a frustrated population of voters in America. Recent polls tell the story, with Congressional Approval ratings at an all-time record low. Not only that, but disapproval ratings are at an alltime high. There is a shrinking population of those typically “undecided” and instead are migrating to a larger population of disapproval. The follow up question for “Do you approve of Congress?” is “Do you believe the nation is heading in the right direction?” Again, a dismally low result of 32% of people believe that the nation is heading in the right direction. Voters use words such as frustration, apathy, distrust, disbelief and even lack of hope. Voters point fingers too: towards advertisements, towards the electorate system, towards the media and towards Washington. These frustrations and disapprovals ultimately come from the differences of campaign strategy and the voters it seeks to attract. An example of such discrepancy is the topic of negative advertisements. Sweeping disapproval for negative advertisements has been well published in the media and within academia. Voters hate negative advertisements. However, when
creating strategies to win an election, negative campaigning is a legitimate tactic. So why would a candidate choose to campaign in a fashion that the voters hate? Because negative campaigns work. “We have a lot of negative campaigns because they are more effective,” Holden said. “As long as the voters respond to it they’re going to get it.” Super PACs are embracing the negative campaign philosophy in full stride. Because they are not tied to a particular candidate, they don’t necessarily receive backlash for their attacks, whereas an attack directly from a candidate could attract negative attention to them and garner less votes. Candidates, of all political parties, still have an equal opportunity to attract Super PACs, according to Holden. The money is out there, and it is up for the campaigns to develop effective strategies to receive it. For Holden and many voters like him, it appears that there are no other answers besides what the law has stated. People have money, groups of people have money, candidates have money, and that money can be spent freely within the outlined campaign finance law. “You can have the freedom to take your money and spend it on something you really believe in if you so choose to,” Holden said. As for the debate on whether or not PACs and Super PACs should be allowed in elections, Holden recognizes that it will always be a game based upon fear of what the other side could do. “I just hope that we become mature enough to not always view things through our partisan lenses.”
the Blogger Raquel Harrah Raquel Harrah is a junior Journalism student at Ohio University and creator of the women’s rights blog The Pink Pen. Harrah incorporates a woman’s perspective on the top news most would otherwise overlook. The Pink Pen won’t be short of topics to cover this election cycle. Republican primary debates have created a new political battlefield most people did not anticipate to arise in 2012: the battle over reproductive rights for women. When President Obama announced details of his health care initiative, which included a requirement that even religious institutions would have to offer insurance that covers contraceptives, the Republican candidates fired back in their primary debates. The spark was ignited. The battle began.
“It’s already understood that women’s reproductive rights are going to be a huge issue in the 2012 election,” Harrah said. “The GOP and Democrats couldn’t be further apart on the issue. Women are going to care a lot about this election.” Mitt Romney, Republican presidential candidate in 2012, noted that he would back a personhood amendment for his home state of Massachusetts, which makes certain forms of birth control illegal. He also suggested that he wanted to “get rid of” federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Harrah believes that politicians and people with persuasion are “picking on” the little people, like Planned Parenthood, who can’t defend themselves against the larger influences. “The best example is how during the GOP debates when the Susan G. Komen pulled their
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annual donations from Planned Parenthood,” Harrah said. “Planned Parenthood was under attack, because politics suddenly made it controversial.” The Susan G. Komen Foundation, which donates over $600,000 to Planned Parenthood annually, withdrew its support during the primary elections. The annual money donated was used for breast cancer screenings at Planned Parenthood clinics. Since then, thousands of women took to social media, newspapers, even letters to the foundation to express their displeasure with the decision. “That’s the great thing about social media, people become engaged and have a voice, it makes everyone listen,” Harrah said. “It’s becoming the great equalizer in politics, against people in power that have so much money to project their opinions. People can now take to their keyboards and influence change.” Harrah understands the potential nature of campaigns. She anticipates sharply angled negative ads between candidates, attacking their stances on reproductive rights. Their stances, ideologically and morally, are too polarizing to ignore in the 2012 election. As for Super PACs and their influence, Harrah is not quite sure if they’ll
help or hurt her cause for women’s reproductive rights. “I would love to know that women will pour their money into Super PACs that support candidates who believe in allowing women the freedom to choose whether or not they want access to birth control,” Harrah said. “But that’s the thing. Women aren’t CEOs typically. They aren’t running companies, controlling their donations to Super PACs and don’t typically have the money males might have when it comes to donating to campaigns and other causes.” Another fear that Harrah has for the 2012 election is youth participation in voting. Most of the supporters and contributors to The Pink Pen are young women, a population that generally fails to actually vote on Election Day. Harrah describes herself as being “political” but admits she hasn’t always committed to voting in the past. The 2012 election might be different. “I feel like women will be rallied by the issues we see in ads, we hear on the news, we read through social media,” Harrah said. “It feels like the GOP is throwing punches at women’s rights, something we have already fought for. I think once women, young and old, realize what is at stake they will vote by any means necessary.”
Lets play the name game Can you identify what party each Super PAC is affiliated with, just by their name and mission statement? American Crossroads “Like you, the leadership, staff, donors and friends of American Crossroads share a deep love for all that America represents – and a deep concern about the direction we are headed in. Our economy is now in the grip of European-style unemployment. Our national debt still spirals out of control, fueled by Washington’s expense-account mentality. Our power and standing in the world are now openly challenged. We are on the brink of leaving the next generation of Americans a far less secure, strong and prosperous country than we ourselves have enjoyed.” (Republican)
Priorities USA Action “At Priorities USA Action, we believe the stakes for protecting our country’s core values have never been higher as the far right pursues an agenda that rewards only the wealthiest few at the expense of middle class families. We advocate for candidates who, first and foremost, support economic policies that generate American jobs and invest in the American economy. We support candidates who believe in the importance of education infrastructure to ensure the American standard of innovation, excellence, and competition. We support candidates who promote national security polices that keep our nation secure and enhance our position as a respected world leader.(Democrat)
Restore Our Future One candidate has the experience to defeat Barack Obama, stop the reckless spending, and bring down our national debt. That candidate is Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney has an unquestionable record of cutting spending, reducing debt, and creating jobs. He’s the Republican candidate that can put our country back on the right path and the only one who can defeat Barack Obama. (Republican)
the Editorial Aaron Westendorf “Who is the best candidate?” That is ultimately the question voters will be asking themselves on November 6, 2012. Right? We, as American citizens living in a democracy, have the free choice to answer the question ‘who is the best candidate’ every time we vote. And we do. Right? Well, maybe. What if I told you that as voters, we consume billions of dollars worth of political advertising before ever making our vote? Yes. That is billions-as in with a ‘B’ and plural ‘S’. And if you think this is normal for elections, it’s not. This is an upward trend. Every election cycle just means that new records will be set. More money will be spent. Our minds will be shifted by more ads. The media will reap from larger profits. Okay, so what? People spend a lot of money to get elected into office. What’s the big deal? It’s not like we live in a world where money matters when choosing a candidate. We always vote for the best candidate, right? According to a Santa Clara University study, 95% of the candidates that raise the most money in their respective elections win office. For a House Member, that’s usually over $1 million. For a Senator, that’s usually over $3.4 million. That means that the candidate would have to spend every day to raise $10,000 for re-election. And
these figures rise every year. Okay, so money matters in elections. There are committees, laws and regulations that watch over campaign-finance. In fact, Congress amended the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 to limit the total amount of campaign expenditures in federal elections. This was done in hopes of eliminating, or at the very least minimizing the power of special interest money. That no longer exists. Citizens United v. FEC changed those rules, and ultimately changed the game of campaignfinance. Prior to the Supreme Court decision, a PAC could only donate a maximum of $10,000 to a candidate. At first glance this may seem like a sizeable donation, but in reality is only a drop in the bucket to what a Super PAC can spend on any particular election. Money could talk in politics before, but it was limited and monitored. Not only can money talk but it can shout, it can influence, it can win an election all by itself now. The only, and I mean only thing standing between a candidate and a billionaire’s (unlimited) money is a technicality – they cannot have direct contact. Prior to my research, PACs didn’t seem significant. Nor did Super PACs, especially due to the fact that there was no political connection or contact between the candidate and the
organization raising funds. In fact, I saw it as a strategic disadvantage for a candidate to rely on money from a Super PAC. The candidate couldn’t control the message, couldn’t help coordinate their efforts to match the Super PAC’s, it just didn’t seem strategic. That was before I began Project PAC. I approached Project PAC with a basic understanding of Political Action Committees, and that was about it. Background research was easy.
Another ‘no.’ I almost walked out of the building in the other direction down Court Street, towards a church. I was begging a higher power to grant me one interview about PACs. I tracked down a professor I knew would let me into his office. My feet hurt anyway. I needed to sit down, even if it meant the same denial I was becoming accustomed to. “I wish I could help…You’re asking really good questions, and they are all questions everyone
“There are new rules and regulations every day. There are loopholes. It’s a cat and mouse game. They try to get away with as much as possible until the law catches up. And because of that, unfortunately, not even us so-called experts, who are esteemed in politics and elections, are comfortable discussing PACs.”
People have already been framing the debate against PACs in campaign-finance. I figured the next step, interviewing experts, would be just as easy as finding background information. Wrong. Very wrong. It was puzzling, almost concerning to me when no one would agree to talk about PACs with me. I desperately walked the hallways in the Bentley Annex Building, home to Ohio University’s Political Science department, desperately seeking an interview from former professors. Even professors that I didn’t know, I figured someone would grant me an interview. They all were experts in their own respect, experts in Political Science and surely knew more about PACs than I. “Sorry, I’m not comfortable enough to go on record about that.” Every time. Three weeks into a ten-week project, determining my final grade as an undergraduate (and ultimately deciding whether or not I graduate), I was dragging myself along rock bottom. “No. I can direct you in the right direction, maybe.”
voting should be asking. I just don’t have the answers. I can’t do an interview.” It was my last hope. I had been pointed, steered, spun around and spit out looking for an interview. I even played the ‘I really loved your class’ and ‘I got an A in your class’ cards, hoping to better my chances of an interview. “Nope, sorry. I don’t think I can do it.” Out of frustration I accidentally asked the most important question of all my research: So why is it that I’ve asked so many people that have a good understanding of campaign-finance, PACs and elections-yet none of them want to do an interview? Am I not asking actual experts? My unnamed professor took a deep breath, let out a thoughtful sigh and admitted what I had unknowingly observed the past two weeks of interviews. “No one can really be an expert about PACs besides those who are a part of them. They’re like taxes. Only people who work them understand. There are new rules and regulations every day. There are loopholes. It’s a cat and mouse game. They try to get away with as much as possible until the law catches up. And because of that,
unfortunately, not even us so-called experts, who are esteemed in politics and elections, are comfortable discussing PACs.” I had been told that those people of the highest education, who spend their time obsessing over politics and elections, could not fully understand PACs. They are experts, a very small population of the electorate. I had found the largest argument for my editorial. The burden on the average voter to understand
money on the majority of voters not being able to identify the differences between a connected and unconnected PAC, or a Super Pac and a Leadership PAC. It is difficult to distinguish between messages from PACs and messages from candidates. Plain and simple, it is. The only difference between a candidate’s ad and a PAC’s ad is the last five seconds. It is then that the ad discloses who paid for it, and if it is affiliated with any candidate or
Voters don’t have time to do everything that is necessary to be knowledgeable going into an election. They have jobs, families, car repairs, birthday parties, bills to pay, soccer practice.. That’s why Super PACs are so significant in today’s politics. They’re money for advertisements. They’re money for messages that reach the voters. They’re money for influence. They’re money to be elected. PACs is unfair. Let us revisit a thought from earlier in this editorial: We, as American citizens living in a democracy, have the free choice to answer the question ‘who is the best candidate’ every time we vote. Right? Kind of, not really. I thought about things after my string of failed interviews. Truths were starting to emerge about PACs; it is impossible for the average voter to understand PACs, it is difficult to distinguish between messages from PACs and messages from candidates, and the current restrictions for Super PACs are nothing more than a technicality. Needless to say, I was becoming scared of these truths. It is impossible for the average voter to understand PACs. The average voter does not have time to continually research the new laws surrounding pack. The average expert doesn’t have this time. How can something that impacts our democracy so much, go so easily unchecked? Because the surrounding structure around PACs has been built so that the average voter can’t understand. For example, I’d put good
their committee. If I am being honest with myself, I have to concede to the fact that most people aren’t even going to look to see who made the ad. Most will either identify with it (because it reinforces their opinion) or ignore it (because it contradicts their opinion). Those in the middle ground will consider the breadth, not depth, of messaging during elections and ultimately won’t investigate who is saying the message, or what biases they may have. Current restrictions for Super PACs are nothing more than a technicality. I have no exact way of proving this. After all, I have limited resources and materials for this project. However, I did observe from the majority of my off the record interviews that experts are aware of how Super PACs are dancing around the independence clause. For instance, no direct contact between Super PAC and candidate still means that they can share the same office building. How can the FEC control the water cooler, or elevator conversations, of employees talking about their days? They can’t. Voters don’t have time to do everything that is necessary to be knowledgeable going into an election. They have jobs, families, car repairs,
birthday parties, bills to pay, soccer practice. The list can go on. They don’t necessarily have time to research the candidates or issues independently. Instead, they listen to advertisements or glance at a newspaper. It sounds bad, but it’s the truth. That’s why Super PACs are so significant in today’s politics. They’re money for advertisements. They’re money for messages that reach the voters. They’re money for influence. They’re money to be elected. Prior limitations allowed candidates to focus more on the issues and attracting votes from discourse. Now, with all the potential money to be had from Super PACs, it is more important to win financial endorsements. So, should PACs still be allowed? I endorse PACs. They have been around for the majority of our elected history. PACs help likeminded people organize together to help endorse a candidate or issue. PACs have the exact same say as individuals, they can only donate a maximum of $2,500 just like you and I. I do not endorse Super PACs. Individuals, corporations and trade unions can break the campaign finance laws intention of limiting major contributions. Super PACs are not limited to the $2,500, and this is because of the so-called “noncoordination” between Super PAC and candidate. They are an extension of candidate campaigns to simply raise money that otherwise would be illegal due to Federal Elections Commission restrictions. If one wealthy individual can keep one candidate in the race, for instance Adilson donating to the Gingrich Super PAC and then the Super PAC repeats the same messages that the actual campaign can’t afford, then that is not democracy. That is a system in which money buys votes. The Supreme Court had good intentions on protecting the freedom of speech for corporations and labor unions. What the Courts underestimated was how this ruling would be used. The Courts didn’t imagine a world where one person could impact so many elections with their money. Leaving something to be ‘unlimited’ in the political world is dangerous. Politicians are desperate for votes, for re-election, for power. They will take an inch and run for miles. The Courts didn’t estimate the sadistic nature of ads, the billions of dollars being poured into those ads,
the negative impact that all of the money would have on society and our democracy. They didn’t expect the amount of drowning that has occurred since opening the floodgates. The most telling truth I found was in politician’s statements. For instance, McCain predicting in 2002, “there’s going to be, over time, a backlash ... when you see the amounts of union and corporate money that’s going to go into political campaigns.” Or a former proponent of Super PACs after the Citizens United Case, Attorney James Bopp Jr., who originally claimed, “No one who matters cares.” Since then, Bopp changed his opinion to, “[Congress] have cut their own throats.” I understand how Bopp now believes Congress has cut their throats. It explains the dismally low approval ratings for Congress. However, I believe Mr. Bopp has it wrong. Congress hasn’t cut their throats. They have sold their souls to the devil, and ultimately have tarnished democracy, all in hopes of getting elected. They have bought into a system in which money wins the election, and money is accessed by any means necessary. Ultimately, there’s a reason candidates worry about PAC spending. There’s a reason why candidates focus more on raising donations than anything else during their campaign. There’s a reason why money wins elections 95% of the time. There’s a reason Karl Rove spent $million on the California House election, and there’s a reason Dan Lungren won that election after Rove’s spending. What is the reason to all of these things? It works. Voters are influenced by ads. We listen to the negative ads. We begin to believe that if a candidate is attacked enough then it must be true they are not suitable for office. Money wins elections simply because it works. Every decision they make is strategic: making an appearance at a country club dinner will bring in more funds for advertising, rather than taking questions from a college campus auditorium. Some might go as far to saying that those decisions are…political. So, we, as American citizens living in a democracy, have the free choice to answer the question ‘who is the best candidate’ every time we vote. And we do. Right? Wrong. Very, very wrong.
Published on May 2, 2012
The unofficial published version of "Public PAC" - a research paper turned interactive magazine spread. Completed by Ohio University's Aaron...