After 'Citizens United': The Attack of the Super PACs
Still from an ad released by Newt Gingrich's campaign.
We have seen the future of electoral politics flashing across the screens of local TV stations from Iowa to New Hampshire to South Carolina. Despite all the excitement about Facebook and Twitter, the critical election battles of 2012 and for some time to come will be fought in the commercial breaks on local network affiliates. This year, according to a fresh report to investors from Needham and Company’s industry analysts, television stations will reap as much as $5 billion—up from $2.8 billion in 2008—from a money-and-media election complex that plays a definitional role in our political discourse. As Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod says, the cacophony of broadcast commercials remains “the nuclear weapon” of American politics.
We’ve known for some time that the pattern, extent and impact of political advertising would be transformed and supercharged by the Supreme Court’s January 2010 Citizens United ruling. But the changes, even at this early stage of the 2012 campaign, have proven to be more dramatic and unsettling than all but the most fretful analysts had imagined.
Citizens United’s easing of restrictions on corporate and individual spending, especially by organizations not under the control of candidates, has led to the proliferation of “Super PACs.” These shadowy groups do not have to abide by the $2,500 limit on donations to actual campaigns, and they can easily avoid rules for reporting sources of contributions. For instance, Super PACs have established nonprofit arms that are permitted to shield contributors’ identities as long as they spend no more than 50 percent of their money on electoral politics. So the identity of many, possibly most, contributors will never be known to the public, even though they are already playing a decisive role in the 2012 election season. Former White House political czar Karl Rove’s Crossroads complex, for example, operates both a Super PAC and a nonprofit. And Rove’s operation is being replicated almost daily by new political operations aiming their money at presidential, Congressional, state and local elections. “In 2010, it was just training wheels, and those training wheels will come off in 2012,” says Kenneth Goldstein, president of Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group. “There will be more, bigger groups spending, and not just on one side but on both sides.”
The 2012 campaign has already confirmed that Super PACs are key players, more powerful in many ways than the campaigns waged by candidates and party committees. But don’t expect commercial media outlets to shed much light on these secretive powers. Newsroom staffs have been cut, political reporting is down and local stations are too busy cashing in on what TV Technology magazine describes as “the political windfall.” The Citizens United ruling and its Super PAC spawn have created a new revenue stream for media companies, and they are not about to turn the spigot off. “Voters are going to be inundated with more campaign advertising than ever,” one investor service wrote in 2011. “While this may fray the already frazzled nerves of the American people, it is great news for media companies.” Indeed, Super PAC ads allow stations to reap revenues from actual campaigns and from parallel “independent” campaigns targeting the same audience with different messages.
Here’s what the next stage of American politics looks like on the screen: WHO, the NBC affiliate in Des Moines, was awash in political advertising the night before the Iowa caucuses. But some ads stood out. One of the most striking was a minute-long commercial featuring amber waves of grain fluttering in the summer breeze, children smiling and a fellow with great hair declaring, “The principles that have made this nation a great and powerful leader of the world have not lost their meaning. They never will.” Then the guy with the great hair announced, “I’m Mitt Romney. I believe in America. And I am running for president of the United States.”
Then came another ad, darker and more threatening, with grainy production values, old black-and-white photos and a blistering assault on the Republican presidential contender who had briefly leapt ahead of Romney in the polling: former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. “Newt has more baggage than the airlines,” the ad warned, before linking Gingrich to “China’s brutal one-child policy,” “taxpayer funding of some abortions,” “ethics violations” and “half-baked and not especially conservative ideals.” Quoting a National Review poke at Gingrich, the ad closed with the line: “He appears unable to transform, or even govern, himself.”
The first commercial is an old-school “closing argument” ad, all optimism and light, along with the usual campaign-season balderdash—the empty banalities of a front-running contender appealing to “principles” and a belief in America. The second represents another archetype: the no-holds-barred takedown of an opposing candidate, which politicians and their consultants traditionally avoid running on the eve of a big vote for fear of muddying their own message and appearing too negative. Romney’s campaign paid for the “amber waves of grain” ad. But who was responsible for the “Newt Gingrich: Too Much Baggage” ad? Restore Our Future, a Super PAC that collected $30 million for the 2012 campaign—more than the combined spending of Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater on the 1964 presidential campaign. And when Gingrich shot to the top of the polls a month before the Iowa caucuses, the group steered $4 million into a TV ad campaign that knocked the former Speaker out of the lead and into a dismal fourth-place finish.
Who finished first in Iowa? And a week later in New Hampshire? The guy with the great hair and all the talk about “principles”—Mitt Romney. He also happened to be the guy who appeared before a dozen potential donors at the organizational meeting for Restore Our Future in July 2011. Romney’s former chief campaign fundraiser moved over to Restore Our Future, as well as his former political director and other aides. Romney’s old partner at Bain Capital helped Restore Our Future get off the ground with a $1 million check. Technically there can be no collaboration between Super PACs and the candidates they are supporting. But Timothy Egan of the New York Times stated the obvious: “This legalism of ‘no coordination’ is a filament-thin G-string. Everyone coordinates.”
Gingrich complained about the presumably unethical and potentially illegal level of coordination between the “principled” Romney campaign and the thuggish Restore Our Future project. When Romney pled innocence and ignorance, Gingrich said: “He’s not truthful about his PAC, which has his staff running it and his millionaire friends donating to it, although in secret. And the PAC itself is not truthful in its ads.” But the griping didn’t get him very far.
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By the time the 2012 race formally began, on January 3, Super PACs had already logged $13.1 million in campaign spending in early caucus and primary states, most of it in Iowa and most of it negative. Romney, whose actual campaign spent only about one-third as much money on ads as did the Super PACs that supported him, emerged as the narrow winner. But he wasn’t the only winner in Iowa or New Hampshire, where a similar scenario played out a week later. Local television stations like WHO in Des Moines and WMUR in Manchester cashed in, big-time, as would stations in later primary states. And station managers in battleground states across the country can hardly wait for the real rush, which will come when the Super PACs that have already been positioned to support the Republican nominee and Democrat Barack Obama spend their money in what is all but certain to be the first multibillion-dollar presidential race in history.
The total number of TV ads for House, Senate and gubernatorial candidates in 2010 was 2,870,000. This was a 250 percent increase over the number of TV ads aired in 2002, when the same mix of federal and state offices was up for grabs. Compared strictly with 2008, the amount spent on TV ads for House races in 2010 was up 54 percent, and the amount spent on Senate-race TV ads was up 71 percent. Even before this year’s Iowa binge, it was clear that 2012 would see a quantum leap in spending from 2008, the greatest increase in American history, and most of this would go to TV ads. As Maribeth Papuga, who oversees local TV and radio purchases for the MediaVest Communications Group, says, “We’re definitely going to see a big bump in spending in 2012.”
It’s not as if Americans haven’t already seen big bumps on what is becoming the permanent campaign trail. Consider how politics has changed in the past four decades. In 1972, a little-known Colorado Democrat, Floyd Haskell, spent $81,000 (roughly $440,000 in 2010 dollars) on television advertising for a campaign that unseated incumbent Republican US Senator Gordon Allott. The figure was dramatic enough to merit note in a New York Times article on Haskell’s upset win. Fast-forward to the 2010 Senate race, when incumbent Colorado Democrat Michael Bennet defeated Republican Ken Buck. The total spent on that campaign in 2010 (the bulk of which went to television ads) topped $40 million, more than $30 million of which was spent by Super PAC–type groups answering only to their donors. In the last month of the election, negative ads ran nearly every minute of every day. The difference in spending, factoring in inflation, approached 100 to 1. The 2010 Colorado Senate race is generally held up by insiders as the bellwether for 2012 and beyond. As Tim Egan puts it, “This is your democracy on meth—the post–Citizens United world.”
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