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2016 Will Be a Test for Super PACs

Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are proving you don’t need a Super PAC to run a presidential campaign.

January 5, 2016

What do Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have in common? Pause for requis­ite awful hair joke. No really. From a campaign finance perspect­ive, they have one distinct­ive thing in common: they have no Super PACs prop­ping up their candid­a­cies.

Now these two candid­ates could not be further apart on most issues, but they are both eschew­ing the typical campaign finance play­book, which since 2010 has included liberal use of Super PACs in federal elec­tions.

Super PACs are differ­ent than regu­lar federal PACS in three key ways: (1) A regu­lar PAC may only take in limited dona­tions (other­wise known as hard money limits); (2) a regu­lar PAC cannot accept money from corpor­a­tions or unions; and (3) a regu­lar PAC can give money directly to federal candid­ates’ campaign commit­tees. 

By contrast, a Super PAC (1) is not required to follow hard money limits and (2) can accept unlim­ited amounts from any source includ­ing corpor­a­tions and unions.  But (3), a Super PAC cannot give money directly to federal candid­ate. Rather, a Super PAC can only spend money inde­pend­ently of federal candid­ates.Typic­ally, they spend money buying expens­ive tele­vi­sion ads to get their message out.

Super PACs were created in 2010 by a D.C. Circuit Court decision called Speech­Now. Ever since, pres­id­en­tial candid­ates have had campaign surrog­ates running Super PACs to support the candid­ate’s elect­oral chances. For example in 2012, Obama’s Super PAC, Prior­it­ies USA Action, raised $79 million and Romney’s Super PAC, Restore Our Future, raised $154 million.

So far Super PACs have outraised the candid­ate’s campaigns by 2 to 1.This cycle, of 1,753 Super PACs, Jeb Bush looked like the Super PAC winner in 2015 as his Right to Rise USA Super PAC raised more than $100 million.  

But back to Sanders and Trump. They appear to be taking two differ­ent paths to avoid need­ing Super PACs for their campaigns. Trump appears to be float­ing along on an endless supply of free media includ­ing extens­ive cover­age of his campaign rallies, press confer­ences and TV appear­ances. With all of this free cover­age, Trump does­n’t have to pay for TV time to get his views to voters the way other candid­ates do.  If this is purpose­ful, the big prob­lem comes if the media loses interest and Trump has to pay for TV time like every­one else. (Trump has announced plans  for TV ads in Iowa, New Hamp­shire and South Caro­lina.)

Senator Sanders by contrast is going the grass­roots route. Last month, his campaign repor­ted it had received more than 2 million contri­bu­tions. (That does­n’t mean 2 million indi­vidu­als as many support­ers have given more than once).This feat surpasses where candid­ate Senator Obama was in 2008 before the Iowa caucuses with 1 million contri­bu­tions.  And the vast major­ity of the contri­bu­tions to the Sanders campaign are in small dona­tions. In 2008, these small contri­bu­tions were a harbinger of robust support from rank-and-file Demo­cratic voters. This could be true for Senator Sanders as well who has raised a total of $73 million (compared to $112 million for Secret­ary Clin­ton).

And so 2016 will be a very inter­est­ing test of Amer­ica’s privately financed elec­tions. What will win out in the end?  If it really is Super PAC money, then that would predict a Secret­ary Clin­ton and Governor Bush match up. Or will grass­roots and media atten­tion rule the day?  In which case, we could have two outsider candid­ates head­lining the two major polit­ical parties. A year ago, I would have said you were crazy if you predicted Sanders versus Trump in the 2016 general elec­tion, but from the vant­age point of Janu­ary 2016, it actu­ally could happen.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not neces­sar­ily those of the Bren­nan Center for Justice.

(Photo: Flickr/401K)