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Opinion

The Democrats’ Super PAC Dilemma for 2020

It would be hypocritical for Democratic candidates to follow the Super PAC route to the presidential nomination.

December 27, 2018

It would be hypocritical for Democratic candidates to follow the Super PAC route to the presidential nomination.

Democrats, unlike Republicans, have never firebombed each other with unlimited Super PAC money in presidential primaries. That Democratic record of restraint owes as much to a quirk of timing as it does to party-wide opposition to whatever-it-takes fundraising.

Barack Obama ran unopposed for the nomination in 2012, the first election cycle after the Citizens United decision. And in 2016, Hillary Clinton, a frontrunner with a shaky commitment to campaign reform, decided for strategic reasons not to attack the small-donor-powered Bernie Sanders.

But as more than a dozen serious Democratic candidates game out their potential 2020 presidential races over the holidays, thoughts turn to sugar plums and, sadly, to Super PACs. A recent front-page New York Times story, augmented by my own reporting, suggests that 2020 is likely to be the year when ambition leads some Democratic candidates to try to follow the Super PAC route to the nomination.

(A technical point: Super PACs are nominally independent of the campaigns they support. But the distancing is mostly illusionary, with former campaign managers often running these supposedly uncoordinated and unregulated political juggernauts.)

The Super PAC path has been well trod by the GOP, a party untroubled by any ideological commitment to campaign reform. In the 2012 primaries, the Republicans embraced Super PACs with a vengeance, with individual billionaire donors keeping the campaigns of Newt Gingrich (Sheldon Adelson) and Rick Santorum (Foster Friess) alive. And, of course, Jeb Bush was supposedly poised to win the 2016 nomination because of his $120-million Super PAC, Right to Rise.

Until now, Democrats have justified their embrace of Super PACs like Priorities USA in general election campaigns against the Republicans by arguing that it would be otherwise suicidal for them to practice "unilateral disarmament." For a party publicly committed to repealing Citizens United, this long-standing Democratic flexibility on Super PACs carries with it a whiff of hypocrisy.

But the motivations prompting 2020 Democratic contenders such as Cory Booker and Kamala Harris to consider deploying Super PACs are far different.

The biggest challenge facing all conventional candidates will be how to accumulate the resources to compete in the California and Texas primaries, which are both scheduled for March 3, 2020. Currently, seven other states are also slated to pick delegates on that same Super Tuesday — a car-crash political schedule that defies rational justification.

The root of the problem: the Democratic National Committee has never tried to control the primary calendar after the first four contests slated for February 2020: the Iowa caucuses, the New Hampshire primary, the Nevada caucuses, and the South Carolina primary. As a result, states can do what they want beginning on Tuesday, March 3 — a day when roughly one quarter of the delegates to the 2020 convention will be chosen.

While all Democrats fantasize about tapping into a Bernie Sanders-like $300-million gusher of online fund-raising, such a small-donor bounty may be unattainable for anyone (including Sanders) in the crowded 2020 field. That means that even candidates who do well during the four early contests in February may be hard-pressed to run credible TV campaigns in California and Texas.

Another factor that may convince nervous candidates to turn to Super PACs is the likely presence in the race of billionaires who won't need to worry about political fundraising. Mike Bloomberg (who will make a final decision in late January) certainly sounds like a candidate — and he may be joined by former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz or hedge-funder Tom Steyer. If Bloomberg and his mega-rich counterparts run, they will flood the airwaves in California and Texas to the frustration of all other candidates.

There are two potent arguments against resorting to Super PACs in the 2020 Democratic primaries: 1) it's ethically bankrupt and 2) it's politically shortsighted.

Any White House dreamer who deploys a Super PAC in the Democratic nomination fight is, in effect, saying, "My personal ambition is far more important than principle." Even if such a candidate were to win the presidency, any campaign reform plans would probably be delayed until sometime after the return of Haley's Comet in 2061.

And — Donald Trump aside — cynicism is rarely a winning political formula. By depending on million-dollar donations from the wealthy, Democratic candidates would be forfeiting any claim to be outsiders or critics of Wall Street and Silicon Valley.

It is also hard to recall any recent presidential campaign in which TV ads in the primaries shaped the outcome. What counts in choosing a nominee in the 21st century has been coverage in the news media, debates, and personal campaigning in the early states. Throw in a robust presence on social media, and you have a potential formula for victory that does not pivot around Super PAC-funded campaign commercials that voters ignore or scorn.

In the end, running for president is a character test — and Democrats who look to Super PACs to beat other Democrats will have, by definition, flunked that exam.

(Image: Don Farrall/Getty)

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