Skip Navigation

Beware the New Conventional Wisdom About Super PACs

With the collapse of the campaigns of Rick Perry and Scott Walker, some are saying Super PACS may not be as important as once thought. Don’t believe it.

September 25, 2015

In the rigorous old days of journalism, it always took three examples to constitute a certifiable political trend that upended all prior human history. But these days—with parched newsroom budgets and shorter attention spans—hard-pressed campaign reporters are forced to base sweeping conclusions on just two events.               

This week debt-ridden Scott Walker abruptly abandoned his White House run even though he still had a wealthy Super PAC (on target to raise $40 million) in his corner. This followed Rick Perry’s withdrawal for lack of funds even though his Oops! Super PAC (actually it was called “Freedom and Opportunity”) had raised nearly $20 million.                               

These two examples were all that were needed to forge a new political orthodoxy.

A New York Times online headline proclaimed: “Demise of Scott Walker’s 2016 Bid Shows Limits of ‘Super PACs’.” Politico employed virtually identical wording in its headline: “Scott Walker, Rick Perry show limits of super PACS.” And a day earlier the Washington Post (my third example) had put this headline on a column by political scientist David Karol: “If you think super PACs have changed everything about the presidential primary, think again.”

The two news stories—written by some of the best reporters on the campaign money beat—were more hedged than their headlines. But in Politico, Kenneth Vogel did talk about the failure of the  "operating assumption" that Super PACS “would absorb many of the core functions of the campaigns during the early months.” And as Nicholas Confessore put it in the Times, “Mr. Walker’s decline and fall hint at the systemic dangers of the Super-PAC-driven financial model on which virtually he entire Republican field has staked its chances.”

Despite these news stories, let’s slow down before we dismiss Super PACs as an over-hyped menace on par with the Y2K bug, collisions with asteroids and President Palin. For if we have learned anything from the odd-duck start to Campaign 2016, it is the danger of jumping to premature conclusions about anything. (Last March, for example, polling analyst Nate Silver gave an off-the-cuff estimate that Walker had a 26 percent chance of winning the nomination).

Here are four reasons for questioning the evidence suggesting that Super PACs are over-hyped:

Rick Perry and Scott Walker were poor examples of Super PAC politics.

Fairly or not, Perry became a laughingstock after he went from front-runner to punch line in a few months in 2011. This time around, he only raised $1.1 million in hard campaign cash—which was not a strategy, but a realistic assessment of his chances. Two rich friends, donating $11 million to Perry’s Super PAC, could not create a viable presidential campaign from the debris of the prior campaign. It would be akin to imagining Dan Quayle winning the White House with a Super PAC.

Walker was defeated by a slipup that has destroyed more campaigns than debate gaffes—foolhardy budgeting.

During the 70 days he was an active candidate (not even long enough to file an FEC report), Walker spent money like he was already the Republican nominee. With a bloated paid staff of 90 and a penchant for setting up costly visual backdrops for speeches in rural Iowa, the Walker campaign assumed it would continue to have strong hard dollar fund-raising to go with its Super PAC swag.

When direct-mail fund-raising dried up after Walker’s lackluster first debate, the campaign began hemorrhaging money, running up a debt of $700,000 in two months. Even then, Walker could have continued with a bare bones Iowa campaign (think Rick Santorum in 2012) backed up by Super PAC advertising. But Walker didn’t have the stomach to risk going further into the hole for a long-shot campaign, so he prematurely hoisted the white flag much like Tim Pawlenty did in 2011.

A year ago, almost no one expected Super PACs to do much more than create saturation TV advertising.

That was the model during both the 2012 and 2014 campaigns. Only the paralysis of the Federal Election Commission and the increasingly porous rules on coordinating with a campaign gave rise to the mistaken notion that Super PACs could do everything in presidential politics.

So maybe some Republican donors are shocked that Super PACs couldn’t pay for Walker’s 90 staffers, handle his campaign travel and deal with state filing fees for primaries. But that is akin to dismissing an iPhone because it doesn’t have an app for emptying the dishwasher.

Super PACs and other outside groups are responsible for more than 80 percent of the GOP TV advertising time already reserved in the first four primary and caucus states (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada). These ads are just beginning to go on the air in the opening-gun media markets—and the political potency of this TV barrage will provide the most valid test of Super PACs in the 2016 primaries.

Super PACs may still keep zombie candidates alive in 2016.

Going into the campaign season, establishment Republicans feared that Super PACs could keep broke candidates in the race forever—thereby guaranteeing that the GOP primary race would stretch into June.

That still may happen, even if Super PAC millions couldn’t save Perry and Walker. A protracted GOP contest all but guarantees that we will see impoverished candidates propped up by Super PAC advertising much as Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich were in 2012.

Right now, there is no way of knowing whether the GOP contest will be ugly, brutish and short. Or ugly, brutish and long.

In an effort to hasten a rush to judgment, the Republican Party now allows states to hold winner-take-all primaries beginning on March 15th. But to give a sense of the uncertainty about projecting six months into the future, we don’t even know how many states will opt for these winner-take-all primaries rather than continuing to allocate their convention delegates proportionally.

Without a strong shift to winner-take-all primaries (which are now slated in Florida and Ohio), we are probably in for a long GOP campaign season with so many candidates still in the fray.

Before we pronounce the Super PAC Era over, we need evidence that candidates have stopped courting their donors.

The greatest danger from Super PACs is that presidential candidates will echo the worldview of billionaires in an effort to guarantee their funding. With traditional Republican Super PAC money on the sidelines (the Koch Brothers, for example, have not anointed a candidate) and Scott Walker’s donors up for grabs, candidates are still ardently prospecting for Super PAC cash. 

It will be time to believe that the Super PAC Era is over when a candidate puts Sheldon Adelson on hold or decides that campaigning in Sac City, Iowa, is more valuable than performing for a room full of billionaires who don’t vote in Iowa or New Hampshire.

Until that miraculous day, assume that Super PACs are here to stay.

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

Walter Shapiro is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale UniversityHe can be reached by email at and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.