Super PACs Explained

The evolution of the new political action committees that have altered the course of political campaigns


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Each presidential election season seems to bring a new fund-raising controversy. In 2008, Barack Obama became the first candidate in a general election to spurn the public financing of campaigns to avoid having to comply with spending limits. In 2000, George Bush and Howard Dean became the first Republican and Democrat, respectively, to refuse public financing of a primary campaign. And of course, there was Watergate, which introduced the Federal Election Commission and a round of campaign-financing laws.

Super PACs emerged as a major influence in the 2012 campaign, and will continue to be a major factor in future elections. Super PACs are independent political committees that support a candidate with unlimited, often anonymous, donations from companies, unions, or individuals. The groups can't contribute directly to a candidate, but they can run favorable ads about a candidate—or negative ones about their favored candidate's opponent. Most of the ads sponsored by super PACs are negative and take considerable liberties. The people running the PACs are typically closely connected to the candidate the PAC supports.

The PACs are required to release the names of donors, however, a technicality in the disclosure rules allows donors to remain anonymous for months. Disclosure can be completely circumvented by PACs that create affiliated nonprofit 501(c)(4) organizations, which are not required to release the names of donors.

Supreme Court Decision Led to Popularity of Super PACs

A relatively new phenomenon, super PACS proliferated following the January 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision that said the government cannot restrict the spending of corporations, unions, and other groups for political campaigns, maintaining that it's their First Amendment right to support candidates as they choose. The Citizens United decision opened the floodgates for unlimited amounts of money to be poured into political campaigns. It also dismantled the McCain–Feingold campaign-finance law that banned issue ads and soft money (funds contributed to the Republican and Democratic National Committees, and to the party committees in each state) in political campaigns.

In the majority decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy said, "We now conclude that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption."

Super PACs Influential in Midterm Elections

The 2010 midterm elections were the first test of the effects of the Citizens United ruling—and the influence of super PACs. Some $80 million was spent by super PACs during the midterm election cycle. Republican candidates largely reaped the benefits of the PACs' largesse, and Republicans won control of the House. Democrats cried foul, saying the elections were being bought by deep-pocketed individuals and companies and questioned what the donors expected in return for their contribution. But it was not long before Democrats established their own super PACs. In the 2014 midterm campaign, 1,360 Super PACs raisded nearly $700 million, according to

The already lax rules governing Super PACs are riddled with loopholes. For example, candidates cannot communicate or coordinate with PAC organizers, but they can speak to a group of donors at a fund-raising event and leave the gathering before any planning or coordinating about fundraising occurs.

Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert helped to educate the public about PACs, famously mocking them on his show, The Colbert Report. In fact, he created his own super PAC, Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, which collected more than $1 million. The PAC ran ads in South Carolina that took aim at Mitt Romney.

Democrats Jump on the PAC Bandwagon

President Obama was an early critic of the Citizens United ruling, calling it a "threat to democracy" and a "victory" for Wall Street and Big Business. He further criticized the ruling in his 2010 State of the Union address, saying the decision would allow "special interests—including foreign companies—to spend without limit in our elections." He went on, "I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests."

With Republican-backed super PACs eclipsing them in fund-raising—Karl Rove's two PACs, American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, raised more than $325 million in the 2012 election season, Democrats felt they were left with no other option than to join the fray. Despite his condemnation of the 2010 ruling, Obama announced in February 2012 that he work with—but not coordinate with—Priorities USA Action, the Democratic super PAC organized to help Obama win reelection. He also said that members of his administration would speak at the PAC's fundraisers. The Ready for Hillary PAC, created to encourage Hillary Clinton to run for president, raised about $15 million from 135,000 donors.

In May 2015, Clinton announced that she'll support Priorities USA Action, a Democratic Super PAC, during her presidential campaign. She's the first Democratic presidential hopeful to endorse the powerful fund-raising groups.

Despite the rule that candidates cannot closely associate with super PACs, the 2012 presidential campaign clearly illustrated that candidates on both sides of the aisle plan to push the limits of campaign finance regulations in future races.

by Beth Rowen

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