Originally Published 2015-07-08 00:00:00 Published on Jul 08, 2015
The amount of money which are expected to be raised and spent in the campaigns leading to the US Presidential elections of 2016 are being seen as unprecedented. At the centre of this complex cycle between big money and US election campaigns are the new breed of organisations called the Super PACs.
Super PACs and campaign fundraising: Sky is the limit

There are no elections without campaigns, and there are no campaigns without money. However, the amount of money which are expected to be raised and spent in the campaigns leading to the US Presidential elections of 2016 are being seen as unprecedented. At the centre of this complex cycle between big money and US election campaigns are the new breed of organisations called the Super PACs (Political Action Committees) with the ability to raise and spend unlimited amount of money for any candidate, outside the official and traditional campaign of the candidate. So, how did these organisations emerge? What is the political philosophy guiding the Super PACs' 'sky is the limit' approach towards fundraising and campaign expenditure?

Super PACs came to the political scene as a result of the US Supreme Court ruling in 2010 in the Citizens United Case that considered monetary contributions as a form of protected speech. Rules also allow candidates to raise funds for their super PACs as long as they have not formally announced their candidature. Some analysts see this prospect as the probable reason behind some of the Republican candidates including former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker delaying their official entry into the laundry list of Republican candidates for the primary season. This luxury is not accorded to federal officials such as sitting senators who are restricted by federal fundraising limits in a presidential run: $5,400 per maximum per donor, for the primary and general election combined. Thus, senators like Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio announced their candidacies earlier.

Sources have pointed out that big donors often contribute large sums through shell corporations that appear in the Super PACs filing, but scant information is usually available about the owner. Compared to the Democratic camp which anyway seems to be overshadowed by Hillary Clinton's candidature, an army of Super PACs supporting their preferred candidates are seen in the Republican Party. Obscene amount of money have and are being amassed for the campaigns and this is just mid-2015, early days in the trail leading to the big day towards the end of 2016. Jeb Bush's Super PAC 'Right to Rise' is being seen as one of the most prominent ones in the campaign fray, with Bush's networks of supporters, thanks to years of campaign experience in the family and their reach into the deep pockets of the Republican donor world. In fact, many other camps setting their sights on the crowded Republican primaries sense a fear of onslaught from the pro-Bush 'Right to Rise'. However, other candidates in the fray including Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Texas Senator Ted Cruz also have powerful and wealthy Super PACs backing their candidatures.

The group of Super PACs formed to support Cruz, have been reportedly using an innovative way of diversifying the donor base. All the Super PACs constituting the network namely- Keep the Promise PAC, Keep the Promise PAC I, Keep the Promise PAC II and Keep the Promise PAC III-all support Cruz's candidature but with different points of focus or methods, allowing donors to have more control over how their money is used. Elections are run and won on the basis of potent messages, but it also matters how those messages are relayed and replayed in the voters' imaginations. As Republican strategist Warren Tompkins who is running the pro-Rubio Super PAC Conservative Solutions said, "This race will be won by the candidate with the best vision for where to take this nation and the resources to ensure that message is heard.""...we're going to spend the next two years ensuring that the resources are there and used to effectively share that vision with voters," Tompkins added.

Many with experience in campaign works have contended that support from a Super PAC has become inevitable to win elections. Although liberal Democratshave expressed uneasiness over Hillary's growing affinity to Super PACs like Priorities USA Action, Clinton's campaign have defended it as a pragmatic move on her part.The Democratic Party has had a complex love-hate relationship with Super PACs, with their candidates including Hillary often employing rhetoric against big money in politics. Although Democrats initially opposed the decision of the Supreme Court in the Citizens United case, political exigency paved the way for President Obama ending his distance from Priorities USA Action during his 2012 re-election campaign. Officials of the Clinton campaign asserted that it would beunwise on the part of Hillary to stay away from Super PACs, while the Republican candidates had super wealthy Super PACs on their side. Former Vermont governor and Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said, "Unfortunately, if you don't play by the same rules everybody else does, you end up losing elections.""The key is to change the rules, and I think we have a much better chance of doing that with her as president than we do with one of the Republicans," Dean argued.

In a matter of few years, Super PACs have moved to the centre-stage of the US political system. A new trend has started whereby most of the close advisers of the Presidential candidates, who usually would have been expected to join the official campaign are either joining or are expected to join the super PACs supporting the candidates. This questions the very presumption that by law, the candidates and their super PACs are not supposed to be coordinating directly. These include poll strategists and campaign advisers like Jesse Benton for Rand Paul, Mike Murphy for Jeb Bush, Keith Gilkes for Scott Walker among others. With close aides moving to the Super PACs, the clout of these organisations are bound to increase, and theiractivities diversified perhaps moving from mostly TV attack ads as were seen during 2012, to more traditional campaign roles ranging from field organizing and voter turnout to direct mail and digital micro-targeting. Despite rules denying direct coordination between candidates and Super PACs, the presidential candidates can attend Super PAC fundraisers as long as they do not ask for donations directly.

Need for campaign finance regulations are regularly espoused by campaign watchdog groups like Democracy 21 but the Federal Election Commission (FEC) has been found seriously wanting in its ability to rein in the extent to which big money is involved and loopholes in legalities are being used by candidates and Super PACs.And as the election fever heats up in America, more mudslinging and more negative ads should be expected during the campaign. Besides the Super PACs, there are non-profit groups also in the game that can raise unlimited sums without disclosing the source of their funding. Election watchers and activists in the United States seem to be clearly worried with the rise of the Super PACs, and the way candidates are redrawing the red lines of campaign finance regulations. However, reading the trends of campaign fundraising and spending in the United States, one can only say-when the genie is out of the bottle, it is hard to put it back.

(Dr. Monish Tourangbam is Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal University, Karnataka)

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