80% of giving to SuperPACs has come from just 58 donors
Two wealthy tribes will decide the political messages we hear — and the ones we won’t
The hidden infrastructure of the 2012 campaign has already been built.
A handful of so-called Super PACs, enabled to collect unlimited donations by the continued erosion of campaign finance regulations, are expected to rival the official campaign organizations in importance this election. In many cases, these groups are acting essentially as outside arms of the campaigns.
These are America’s best-funded political factions, their war chests filled by some of the richest men (and almost all are men) in the country.
More than 80 percent of giving to Super PACs so far has come from just 58 donors, according to the Center for Responsive Politics analysis of the latest data, which covers the first half of 2011. The Republican groups have raised $17.6 million and the Democratic groups $7.6 million. Those numbers will balloon, with American Crossroads, the main Republican Super PAC, aiming to raise $240 million.
Sunlight is the best disinfectant
So now comes the news that the owner of the Chicago Cubs has been pitched the idea of creating an anti-Obama ad campaign focusing on Jeremiah Wright — the minister at Obama’s former church who became controversial in the 2008 presidential campaign for exclaiming, “God Bless America? God Damn America!” You can read a report about it here. The notion is to spend $10 million during the Democratic convention to link Obama to Wright, concluding that Wright implanted terrible ideas about America in Obama’s brain, and thus that Obama can’t be trusted to be President as a result.
I don’t want to talk about the inherent inanity of this idea: the idea that Obama is a dangerous radical might have worked before he had been President of the United States for four years, after all, but it is unlikely to change any minds AFTER he’s been president for four years. Likewise, I don’t really want to talk about the racism embedded in this attack: others will, and the “black other” who must be controlled by whites is an old theme in American political life dating back into the slavery era (a point I have discussed before). And I don’t even want to talk about the way this issue demonstrates the outsized influence of SuperPACs in this election: really? One guy can just dump $10 million into an election and we’re okay with that? Really?
No: I want to talk about transparency. See, as disgusting as I think this plan is, I am thrilled to death that I KNOW ABOUT IT AT ALL. Just by knowing whose money it is, and what goals are behind, I can assess whether I find the message credible. I can put the ad in a context from which I can make a judgment. And that’s just wonderful.
One of the worst things about Citizens United, and about American campaign finance law more generally, is that it makes it pretty easy to hide who you are and what you want from the public at large. I can know what a person or donor wants — or at least I can guess. But what does “Americans for a great America” want? What does the “Better America” foundation want?
Alas, Citizens United and current Federal Election Commission inaction make it all too easy to hide interests behind happy labels. Who can be against a group (I just made up) called “Puppies are great!”? (Or “GET ALL THESE DAMN CAT PHOTOS OFF THE INTERNET” for that matter!?)
As a consequence, I don’t know what the people behind these groups want. I can’t make an informed judgment about them — or the candidates and causes they support.
So I’d like make a modest proposal. Eliminate all campaign contribution limits. They’re essentially a joke anyway. Instead, go for 100% transparency. If you create or give money to a SuperPAC or associated organization, you have to declare who you are. That’s all. You have to cite, by name, every donor and list the amount they gave.
That sounds like a pretty good deal to me: you get to give as much as you want. I get to know who you are.
And if you’re afraid to tell me who you are because you are giving to a cause or a candidate you are embarrassed by, well then let me offer you a piece of advice: don’t give the contribution.
Sunshine, they say, is the best disinfectant.
In Fact, No One Listens to What People Say
So as I engage in my morning ritual of reading lots of newspapers, both in real paper form and online, I have been fascinated by all the buzz Stephen Colbert has generated about his supposed run for President. I watched Colbert and Stewart riff on Colbert’s SuperPAC last night, and thought they satirized the win-wink nudge-nudge reality of non-coordinating coordination between SuperPACs and candidates quite brilliantly. Then, of course, Colbert announced the formation of his exploratory committee … and the crowd went wild.
Except, of course, Stephen Colbert DID NOT announce the formation of an exploratory committee to run for President of the United States. He announced the formation of an exploratory committee to investigate running for the President of the United States OF SOUTH CAROLINA.
Pop quiz: DOES SOUTH CAROLINA HAVE A PRESIDENT? If you don’t know the answer, please stop reading this blog post now. You’re too dim to understand my point.
For the rest of you: the moral of the story is PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT PEOPLE SAY, NOT WHAT YOU THINK THEY SAY. Colbert is a brilliant satirist, and a brilliant attention-getter. He will run a beautiful mock campaign for President of the United States … of South Carolina. It will slice the rituals and absurdities of the real campaign to pieces and we will laugh along with him.
But he’s not running for President. And he told you so. Pay attention.
“There is a hall-of-mirrors quality to what he is doing that is hilarious and very effective,” said Mark Feldstein, a professor of journalism who is about to begin teaching at the University of Maryland. “He is taking advantage of loopholes to set up an organization that is not a legitimate political action committee, if there is such a thing, to make the point that the current system is a form of legalized bribery. Try making that point as a member of the mainstream media and holding on to your objectivity.”—David Carr
Money and the 2012 election: the round up
David Firestone at the New York Times has a useful summary piece on money and the 2012 election. It’s worth a read.
- both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama raised and spent over $1bn each.
- SuperPACs raised and spent over $800 million; some 60% of that total was raised from only 159 people and groups.
- Las Vegas casino owner Sheldon Adelson personally spent more than $150 million on the election.
- The Obama campaign is taking unlimited corporate contributions to pay for the inauguration.