While most folks probably don’t realize it, the SuperPACs have been heavily involved in the Republican primary. Those supporting Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have been spending obscene amounts of money. These PACs have been bankrolling a heavy dose of ads in the states that have been involved so far. Two years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case, those in charge of the SuperPACs are changing the “calculus of political campaigns,” according to my friend John Anzalone. John’s research firm has been polling public opinion on activities and reactions in the Republican primaries and his reports have been most interesting.
The Center for Responsive Politics’ OpenSecrets database, which measures the spending by outside groups in election cycles on a year-to-date basis, is a source of some rather interesting information. The increase in PAC spending from 2008 to 2012 is huge. It should be noted that this year’s exorbitant spending is the product of just one party’s primary. Since there is no Democratic opponent to President Obama, all of the spending has been by GOP-controlled PACs. The amounts spent in 2008 included both the Democratic and Republican nominating contests. Thus far, SuperPACs have already spent over $50 million on the 2012 elections.
It’s not surprising that outside money comprises a greater share of overall spending than it has before. According to the Wesleyan Media Project, actual spending by the candidates in the GOP Presidential primary has decreased in this cycle compared to 2008. At this juncture four years ago, the candidates had already spent over $48 million in advertising. But that figure is only $13 million this year. It should be noted that so far, five individuals have donated 25% of the money given to the SuperPACs. The total given by these five donors is over $40 million and all of it has been spent in the GOP presidential primaries thorough February 21st.
It’s apparent that the public doesn’t realize how bad the Citizens United decision really was for ordinary folks. According to a recent Pew Research poll, only 54% of registered voters say they have heard about “a 2010 Supreme Court decision allowing corporations and individuals to spend as much as they want on political ads for or against candidates as long as they don’t coordinate with the candidates or campaigns.” Those who have heard about the ruling, however, don’t like it and believe it has had a negative effect on the 2012 Presidential campaign. The poll reveals that 65% of the people feel that way. The more folks learn about the effects of Citizens United on the 2012 presidential race, the more they dislike it and that is good news for the Obama reelection campaign. Those saying the ruling is having a negative effect rises to 78% among those who have heard “a lot” about the ruling.
Interestingly, the dislike is pretty much along non-partisan lines. Roughly half of Republicans, Democrats and independents alike have heard of the Court’s decision. Among those who have, a majority of each partisan group says it is having a negative effect on the campaign cycle. The polls show voters have remained overwhelmingly anti-Citizens United after being exposed to its effects.
It’s obvious that folks around the country are greatly concerned over the massive spending we are seeing in political campaigns. Voters’ concerns about SuperPACs seem to feed on the long-standing mistrust of big money’s influence on government. In a perfect world, candidates would denounce SuperPAC spending. But we all know that is not going to happen under the current system. In fact, in a perfect world, we wouldn’t even need campaign finance reform, but we certainly do at this time. The Democrats can’t afford to allow the GOP to use the SuperPAC money and have their own candidates unilaterally reject SuperPAC money. A SuperPAC ceasefire would be good news for the voters who could then decide on candidates based on qualifications.
The public is very supportive of campaign finance reform, according to all of the polls. Democracy Corps finds that 81% of likely voters agree that “there is too much big money spent on political campaigns and elections today and reasonable limits should be placed on campaign contributions and spending.” Lawmakers might also take note that two-thirds of independents surveyed in that poll agree that “reducing the influence of money in politics and special interest lobbyists is a very important factor in my vote.”
Even though SuperPACs have already taken in over $160 million this cycle, it’s important to note that that is just the tip of the iceberg compared to what we’ll see in the general election. There will be much more money spent because of the many more states in play. With SuperPACs poised to serve as a glaring example of why people are so concerned about the influence of corporate and special interest money in politics, members of Congress might be more inclined to take on reform in 2013.
Unfortunately, because of the elections, campaign finance reform won’t happen this year. We can only hope for reform in 2013. The GOP has made it clear that there will be no reform this year. Nobody should expect the Democrats to unilaterally disarm since it would be political suicide for them to do so. It will be up to the voters in the General Election to let Congress know that reform is badly needed and must happen. So for now we should be prepared for the barrage of negative advertisements paid for by the SuperPACs. I watched some of the ads in Michigan and Arizona run by both Romney and Santorum and was shocked at how negative and mean-spirited they were. Those ads made previous ones run both by and against Gingrich look pretty tame and I thought those were very bad. It will be most interesting to see how things go between now and the GOP convention.
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