The GOP establishment is currently paying for years of courting Donald Trump (Mitt Romney flying to Las Vegas to receive his endorsement in 2012) as the King of the Comb-Overs flirts with a third-party run.
Then there was the GOP’s early embrace of Super PACs as a way of erasing Barack Obama’s fundraising edge as an incumbent president. Now five years later, Super PACs are scuttling the plans of Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus for an orderly nomination fight that ends in March or early April with a consensus nominee.
With Super PACs, all it takes is a billionaire and a dream.
That, more than anything, explains why an unprecedented 17 Republicans have declared for the nomination. In prior years (as 2011 presidential dropout Tim Pawlenty knows well) the challenge of competing with well-heeled candidates was daunting when the maximum individual contribution was $2,500. (The amount is indexed to inflation and is currently $2,700).
But now a shortage of money is unlikely to winnow out many GOP candidates even if they lag behind the field in Iowa and New Hampshire. As long as a Super PAC is willing to pay for TV ads, the also-rans will stumble on, hoping for a miracle on par with Ronald Reagan’s dramatic comeback in 1976. (Gerald Ford took Iowa and five straight primaries before Reagan saved his political career by winning the North Carolina primary on the Panama Canal issue.)
Too much money is floating through Republican politics for anyone to drop out. According to calculations by Kenneth P. Vogel and Tarini Parti in Politico, six long-shot contenders (Rick Perry, Chris Christie, John Kasich, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz) have already received $86 million in Super PAC support.
As a result, the Republican race may last as long as the 2008 Obama-versus-Hillary-Clinton marathon, which ended in June, nearly half a year after the first ballots were cast. A protracted, multi-candidate primary fight would make it harder for the eventual nominee to move to the center for the general election. And such a scorched-earth battle might leave lasting scars that would take months to heal.
All this brings us to a Super PAC reform that even Republican fans of the Citizens United decision might support. All it would take would be a tiny change in a campaign reform law that was signed by…wait for it…Richard Nixon before Watergate in 1971.
The four-decade-old legislation mandates that broadcast television stations must offer political candidates their “lowest unit charge” during the final weeks before a primary or caucus. That means, to simplify a little, that candidates pay ad rates comparable to major advertisers like McDonald’s even when TV time is scarce.
In contrast, Super PACs and “dark money” independent group do not qualify for this federally mandated discount. They instead have to ante up what the free market will demand. In the cluttered Denver media market before the 2014 elections, the Super PAC Tax was 225 percent. That is, a candidate had to pay $400 per Gross Rating Point while outside political groups had to pay $900 for the same TV time. It is easy to imagine that a Super PAC might have to pay three times as much as a candidate for Des Moines television time on the eve of the Iowa caucuses.
These preferential rates for candidates kick in 45 days before a primary or caucus. That means (based on the current early February dates for the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary) that Super PACs will be on the same footing as candidates in buying TV time until just before Christmas. Only in the last frenzied 45 days would there be a Super PAC tax.
But what if Congress changed the law so that candidates would qualify for discount TV time beginning 90 days before a presidential primary or caucus? That tiny legislative tweak would transform the TV ad wars in the 2016 nomination fight.
Why would a 90-day rule make such a difference?
With ad campaigns beginning now in Iowa and New Hampshire, Super PACs would find themselves at a significant financial disadvantage in these early states starting around Halloween. In later states on the primary calendar, Super PACs would always pay more for TV time since no one (not even Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush) could afford to run a media campaign more than 90 days before the California or Texas primaries.
Even Republicans militantly opposed to campaign reform might support this legislation. It would give greater weight to the GOP’s traditional fund-raisers rather than ideological Super PAC billionaires whose self-interest may be different than the Republican Party. Moreover, it would only apply to presidential primaries so it would do nothing that might jeopardize the GOP’s financial strategy for the 2016 general election against the Democrats.
Members of Congress — regardless of party — should not fear this change. For congressional primaries, the current 45-day rules would still apply. And Republicans on Capitol Hill, worried about tight 2016 races, would presumably benefit from a shorter presidential nomination fight in their own party.
Democrats might be tempted to reject this proposal since the Republicans are suffering from Super PAC meddling in their primaries. But it would be hard for a party committed to overturning Citizens United to oppose a practical proposal to curtail Super PACs. And if Hillary Clinton — the Democratic establishment favorite — needs Super PACs to outraise Bernie Sanders, then her political problems are too deep to ever be solved with money.
Despite these arguments, it is unlikely that the Super PAC Tax will be expanded for the 2016 primaries. Part of it is the natural state of inertia on Capitol Hill. But the larger obstacle is the same one that has gotten the Republicans into this Super PAC mess — political parties rarely recognize their own self-interest.
Walter Shapiro, a Fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked as Salon’s Washington bureau chief, as well as for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale University. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.