Can you buy an election? The effect of Super PACs

The current electoral campaigns in the race to President have thrown us some very serious curve balls. The correlation between funding and success is no longer direct. In 2010, the laws governing political candidates and the way their campaigns are funded experienced drastic transformation with the introduction of Super PACs.

What are Super PACs?

Officially, Super PACs are known as ‘independent expenditure-only committees’. They came to be in January 2010 via a ruling from the Supreme Court stating the government could not restrict the spending of corporations, unions or political action groups as it is their first amendment right to support candidates of their choice. This ruling meant that millions of dollars, previously inaccessible, could be used to support political candidates. Therefore, Super PACs are able to raise unlimited funds and use them to support or detract from candidates of their choosing. They are not permitted to give money directly to the candidates or their campaigns nor are they allowed to coordinate directly with the campaigns. They must also report all donors to the Federal Election Commission.

After the Supreme Court ruling many argued that Super PACs would allow corporations and political organizations to essentially ‘buy’ the election, but the 2012 and current 2016 electoral processes have proved differently.

Big money in the 2012 election

In the 2012 elections Super PACs were responsible for raising more than $1 billion dollars, with 70% dedicated to Conservative candidates. Mitt Romney alone received $153.8 million dollars from his primary Super PAC, Restore our Future, meanwhile Obama brought in $78.8 million from Super PAC Priorities USA. Based on the concerns of critics after the Super PAC ruling was passed, Romney should have won due to his funding but this was not the reality. Due to the fact that Super PACs are not allowed to coordinate with the campaign, much of Romney’s PAC money was used for advertisements delegitimizing his opponents. These attack ads ultimately overloaded viewers and did little to win votes. Ultimately, Romney lost the election, Obama won and the senate remained democratic. Obviously the amount of money Super PACs were able to raise wasn't as indicative as originally believed.

The current election is beginning to look quite similar where dollars raised do not equal success. One of the primary concerns going into this election regarding Super PACs was that Wall Street win too much influence through the campaign finance system. If this was the case how is it possible that Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed ‘democratic socialist’ raised more money in individual donations than any candidate in the Republican field? And more small donor donations (>$200) than any candidate in history?

Jeb Bush’s Super PACs raised $123.7 million dollars making him the winner of the Super PAC race at the time. A hollow victory as he quickly dropped out.  Whilst Bush may have raised the most money, you wouldn't know it based on his results. His financial backing versus his polling numbers illustrates that no matter how much money you throw at a campaign, it won’t help a weak campaign or a struggling candidate.

Meanwhile Bernie Sanders, who rejected any Super PAC funding, made considerably more headway than Bush. Trump has only received $1.8 million from his Super PAC and has raised the least amount of money of all the candidates yet.

Free media vs paid media

What seems to be playing even more of an important role than money in this campaign is earned air-time. It is obvious that earned media is more influential than paid media as voters ignore ads but pay attention to the news and debates, thus helping to explain Trump’s success. He has been all over the news, every day for months. He attracts controversy and provokes debates surrounding contentious topics, giving him more time on mainstream television than any other candidate. This is hard to compete with.

Ultimately, money matters, it determines who can run and how long they will stay in the race, and the ways they discuss the issues. But it is not everything, and as it turns out money will not predict the next president.

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  1. Jared Mathis

    > One of the primary concerns going into this election regarding Super PACs was that Wall Street win too much influence through the campaign finance system. If this was the case how is it possible that Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed ‘democratic socialist’ raised more money in individual donations than any candidate in the Republican field? And more small donor donations (>$200) than any candidate in history? If the argument is that Super PAC's are powerful because they allow a few rich people to influence elections, the amount of money Bernie pulled in and the average per donor is irrelevant. In fact, Bernie doing that and losing sort of proves the opposite point you're making: money from a few rich people spent in elections overpowers the will of the majority but less rich people - showing that maybe Super PAC's are un-democratic. > After the Supreme Court ruling many argued that Super PACs would allow corporations and political organizations to essentially ‘buy’ the election, but the 2012 and current 2016 electoral processes have proved differently... Mitt Romney alone received $153.8 million dollars from his primary Super PAC, Restore our Future, meanwhile Obama brought in $78.8 million from Super PAC Priorities USA. Based on the concerns of critics after the Super PAC ruling was passed, Romney should have won due to his funding but this was not the reality... money matters, it determines who can run and how long they will stay in the race, and the ways they discuss the issues. But it is not everything, and as it turns out money will not predict the next president. That sounds like "Super PAC's don't completely guarantee the outcome of the election, so they must okay to have in a democracy." You really think people would spend millions of dollars if they didn't have any effect on the election? That's silly. Super PAC's must be effective; that's why people spend that much money repeatedly. However, if Super PAC's don't really change the outcome of elections, you should have not problem to make them illegal, since they don't do anything significant, anyway? Right? Also, the comments at the end of your article about the media having more influence doesn't prove your point at all. "Y is a bigger problem than X, so X isn't a problem!" No, X and Y are both problems; the relative magnitude of Y is independent of X. Also, while you may be right that the media's attention on Trump is hard to compete with and is a huge part of his success (I have no idea either way), you didn't really demonstrate why that is, at least that I found convincing.