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Presidential Campaign Money So Far Speaks in Tongues

Well-funded Super PACs have yet to make the difference in the 2016 campaign, and the wealthiest donors are sitting on the sidelines.

December 29, 2015

“Money talks” has been a political truism since George Washington spent $195 on a hogshead of punch, 35 gallons of wine and 43 gallons of strong cider to aid in his election campaign for the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1758.

But in this—the first presidential campaign dominated by Super PAC spending—money has been speaking in tongues. Messages are embedded in the fund-raising patterns, but they are difficult to decipher and somewhat contradictory.

It is still sufficiently early in the presidential cycle that more than 80 percent of the TV ads aired so far have been positive, according to the Wesleyan Media Project. This “if you don’t have something nice to say…” tone will vanish with the New Year as the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary draw near.

Super PAC spending, for example, may prove far more potent once attack ads define the presidential races. And presidential primaries differ from the general election campaign when Super PAC donors follow predictable partisan patterns. As a result, all the conclusions below about the power of money in the 2016 presidential race should be regarded as preliminary.

Small Donors: Their Power and Limits

After last Saturday night’s Democratic debate, Bernie Sanders announced that he had set a record—more donors than any presidential primary campaign in history. His claim of 2.2 million contributors bested a record set by Barack Obama running unopposed in 2012. In fact, the odds are increasing that the scrappy under-dog Sanders campaign will actually out-raise the Hillary Clinton juggernaut in the fourth quarter of this year.

Nothing as dramatic has occurred on the Republican side. Both Ben Carson (59 percent of his donors gave less than $200) and Sen. Ted Cruz (40 percent under $200) have harvested the fruits of grassroots fund-raising. But, according to Carson financial information leaked to Reid Epstein of the Wall Street Journal, the campaign spent almost all the $8.8 million it raked in October on fund-raising costs. As for Cruz, his success with average donors has not prevented him from aggressively courting wealthy givers as well.

Before breaking out a bottle of (cheap) champagne to celebrate the vibrancy of the small-is-beautiful theory of campaign finance, consider the limitations of depending on online and direct mail fund-raising. Dating back to Howard Dean in 2003 (who hit the first gusher with Internet fund-raising), presidential primary candidates who do the best with small donors tend to be those who operate outside the political mainstream. The only exceptions have been universally known candidates like Obama and Hillary Clinton.

What this suggests is that stressing small-donor financing in presidential primaries runs the risk of fueling a polarized electorate—and raising the odds on a general election contest between, say, Cruz and Sanders. For up to now, most presidential candidates with mainstream views (such as Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and John Kasich this year) have been unable to exploit online fund-raising to power their campaigns.

Super PACs Strike Out (For Now)

Unless Jeb Bush’s misfiring campaign suddenly revives in the next few weeks (which, in theory, could happen), the third in the Bush clan to seek the White House will be equated with such expensive disasters as the Titanic, the Edsel and the Iraq War. Already, Mark Murray from NBC News has offered a verdict: “It isn’t too early to declare that the $35 million—and counting—that Bush and his allies have spent in TV ads since September might go as the least effective advertising campaign in presidential history.”

Sure, other rich GOP presidential campaigns have gone belly up in embarrassing fashion: John Connally (1980), Phil Gramm (1996), Steve Forbes (1996, 2000), Rudy Giuliani (2008) and Rick Perry (2012). But if Jeb! continues on his current political trajectory, he would be the first candidate to file for political bankruptcy after raising more than $100 million in Super PAC swag.

When Scott Walker ($19 million in unspent Super PAC funds) and Rick Perry ($12 million unspent) pulled out of the GOP race late last summer, their abrupt withdrawals prompted the first round of claims that the power of Super PACs was over-rated. At the time, I cautioned that it was too early for such sweeping judgments.  

Admittedly, the evidence is now stronger that Super PACs may be vulnerable to Kryptonite in presidential primaries. Especially since a little-known 1971 campaign reform law requires broadcast TV stations to offer candidates their lowest unit charge while Super PACs are forced to pay market rates.

This Super PAC Tax has trimmed the buying power of big-money Bush supporters. In the New Hampshire media market, Reuters reported, the Bush campaign recently paid $41,000 to run 44 TV spots during a nine-day period. But Right to Rise (the Bush Super PAC) had to pay $139,000 for equivalent TV time in the first primary state.

Yet even now, it would be a mistake to dismiss the influence of Super PACs on the 2016 campaign.

As long as candidates continue to woo these Super PAC barons, the power of these billionaire donors is enhanced. Sean Sullivan and Karen Tumulty reported in the Washington Post, “Rubio is certainly capable of turning on the charm with one key constituency: deep-pocketed donors. He recently secured support from billionaire hedge fund managers Paul Singer and Kenneth Griffin.”

Pundits may also be over-reacting to the specific limitations of Walker, Perry and Bush as candidates. A better test may come soon when four Super PACs supporting Cruz begin spending their $30-million war chest. Meanwhile, Rubio is being aggressively supported by a “dark money” group that does not disclose its donors (the Conservative Solutions Project). The spending patterns of mystery groups like the Conservative Solutions Project (which had run $8.4 million in pro-Rubio ads by mid-November) could end up modifying the Conventional Wisdom about the potency of billionaire financing in presidential primaries.  

It is also quite possible that Super PACs are more adept at bringing down a political rival than in ballyhooing their favored candidate. In the 2012 presidential primaries, Mitt Romney’s Super PAC decapitated Newt Gingrich after the former House speaker won the South Carolina primary. So all conclusions about Super PACs in presidential primaries are tentative until a damage report is conducted after these unregulated operations flood TV screens with attack ads.  

The Uncoordinated FEC

The deadlocked Federal Election Commission has, through inaction, turned the prior rules banning coordination between campaigns and Super PACs into a laughingstock. Each week brings another aggressive and self-serving legal interpretation by a campaign’s lawyer of what is permissible in 2015.

Super PACs, in the past, have had problems running convincing positive TV ads because the groups could not go to the candidates themselves to ask for personal photographs and family interviews. The Cruz campaign—stretching FEC rules like a taffy pull—posted 15 hours of family videos on YouTube for one purpose: So they could be downloaded by Super PACs for use in TV commercials.

David Brock, a former rightwing hit man reborn as a Hillary Clinton loyalist, has discovered that the lines separating a campaign from a Super PAC can be written in invisible ink.

Michael Scherer of Time magazine discovered that Brock is brandishing a legal opinion that claims that his Super PAC, Correct the Record, can directly coordinate with the Clinton campaign because the group does not run TV commercials. Brock is clinging to this outlandish position even though he simultaneously sits on the board of another pro-Clinton Super PAC, Priorities USA, which is in the midst of a heavy TV barrage.

Presumably, Brock of Correct the Record never speaks to Brock of Priorities USA. Even in his sleep.

The Case of the Indecisive Billionaires

Early 20th-century Mississippi Senator John Sharp Williams apparently coined the enduring line about the danger of political patronage: “When you get a man appointed, you make 20 enemies and one ingrate.”

Many Republican Super PAC funders have made the same calculation about the presidential primaries. With a double-digit field of candidates, they see major risks in going all out for a favorite who then fails to get the nomination.  

That helps explain why the Koch Brothers and Karl Rove’s American Crossroads are sitting on the sidelines during the primaries—or merely aiming their fire at Hillary Clinton. Even Sheldon Adelson, who propped up the 2012 Gingrich campaign, has been slow to make an endorsement this year. Adelson’s reward for delay is the fawning deference that he received from all the Republican candidates when the last debate was held in his Las Vegas casino hotel.

Despite a recent tilt toward Rubio, the GOP’s unpledged billionaires remain a long way from trying to anoint a 2016 nominee. They are even too worried about boomerang effects (or too cheap) to unite behind a stop-Trump ad campaign. 

As a result, the air war against Trump is being exclusively waged by John Kasich’s modest-sized Super PAC, New Day for America. Which is a little like the tiny Duchy of Grand Fenwick declaring war on the United States in the 1950s comedy, The Mouse That Roared.

The dithering by the GOP’s Super PAC barons may be the most heartening campaign finance trend of 2015. Uncertain where to turn, the Koch Brothers and many of their financial peers are waiting for the primaries to pick a nominee.

Think about that for a second. Even billionaires are willing to defer to the judgment of Republican voters. Maybe there’s hope. 

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.

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