Super PACs’ Super Influence and Their Destruction of Our Political System

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As we enter the homestretch to Tuesday’s Michigan primary, there is another, arguably more important duel taking place beyond the battle between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum: the war between their super PACs.

Restore Our Future, the Romney-backing super PAC, has bought over $800,000 of television time in Michigan, covering local broadcasts with accusations of Santorum’s past as a Washington insider.  And while Romney has a massive fundraising advantage over Santorum, a super PAC backing Santorum, the Red, White and Blue Fund, has evened the playing field by buying almost $700,000 worth of television ads in Michigan.

This marks just the latest influx of massive super PAC spending throughout the Republican presidential primary, which has become the most dominant force in the Republican race.

Super PACs, which came from the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling last year, can legally raise unlimited amounts of money from individuals, corporations, unions and trade associations.  They are permitted to spend that money on messages supporting the election or defeat of federal candidates. They cannot directly donate the money they raise to candidates and are not allowed to work directly with the candidate’s campaign.

Super PACs are responsible for a new flood of secret and unlimited cash infiltrating our political system.  They have become far more important and influential than the candidates themselves or the voters, and have fundamentally changed American politics.

To date, there are 328 super PACs that have raised about $99 million and spent about $48 million in the 2012 election cycle, $42.5 million of which has been spent on the presidential race.  This amount of money is almost double the amount of money that came from outside spending at this point in 2008, when $23.1 million had been spent, $12.9 million of which came from super PACs.

More specifically, 12 candidate-specific super PACs have spent more than $22 million on ads and other expenditures so far during the Republican presidential primary.

The influence that super PACs have had thus far cannot be underemphasized.  The pro-Romney super PAC, Restore Our Future, spent $4.5 million last fall attacking Gingrich once he rose in the polls.  The PAC helped Romney fend off a last-minute surge by Gingrich in Iowa.

Restore Our Future has gone on to spend a total of about $8 million on advertisements and other expenditures to help Romney’s electoral prospects, which played a significant role in Romney’s decisive victory in Florida.  Although this is far more money than any other super PAC involved in the 2012 primary has spent, Gingrich and Santorum’s campaigns have been carried by super PACs as well.

Since Gingrich’s steep drop in Iowa, pro-Gingrich super PAC Winning Our Future has spent $4.2 million, much of which has been used to paint Romney as a “predatory corporate raider.”

Rick Santorum’s campaign had raised the least out of the current Republican candidates through 2011, just under $2.2 million, giving Romney a 28-1 fundraising advantage.  But the pro-Santorum super PAC, Red, White and Blue Fund, spent over $240,000 in the days leading up to the February 7th primaries in Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri, helping Santorum sweep all three races.

What is even more concerning than how much money the super PACs are spending is that most of that funding has come from a very small number of individuals and organizations.  This makes small contributions from large numbers of Americans largely irrelevant, and multiplies the influence that the wealthiest Americans have over our political system.

Indeed, super PACs raised about $181 million in the last two years, and about half has come from fewer than 200 wealthy people.  Further, 93% of the contributions raised by super PACs were $10,000 or more, with more than half of this money coming from just 37 people who each gave $500,000 or more.

Not surprisingly, the American people are very unhappy with the super PACs and their influence on our political system.  According to a survey from Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, 62% of voters oppose the Court’s Citizens United ruling.  And over three-quarters say they would like candidates to make campaign finance reform a “key” issue in 2012.

The GQRR also poll found the majority of voters across the aisle – Republicans, Democrats and independents – all agree with the following statement: “Given what I see in the presidential race, I am fed up with big donors and secret money that controls which candidate we hear about. It undermines democracy.”

And the latest New York Times/CBS poll found similar voter sentiment regarding outside spending. The poll found that two-thirds of respondents favor limiting ad spending by outside groups.

The detrimental impact and corruption of super PACs on the American political system cannot be understated.  Candidates no longer need to persuade future constituents to donate to their campaign because they believe in that candidate’s leadership.  Instead, candidates focus on convincing a few extremely rich Americans that their interests will be attended to if the candidate wins. Make no mistake – expectations of advantageous policy positions come along with multi-figure checks.

It is a shame that such a small number of our political leaders are willing to take a stand against such deceptive fundraising practices.  Such methods directly diminish the resiliency of our country’s political system.