PAC Power

The game has changed, but perhaps not as much as we once thought

By Kellyn Brown

The power of Super PACs was supposed to extend the staying power of primary election candidates, perhaps even deep into 2016, perhaps even until next June when Montanans finally cast their ballots more than four months after Iowans.

That may still happen. We could draw some Democrats and Republicans campaigning across our state for a handful of delegates in an undecided race. But it’s unlikely, especially as weaknesses are exposed in these ever-powerful PACs.

Super PACs (or political action committees) began cropping up after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which allowed groups to raise unlimited amounts of money from individuals, corporations and unions to influence elections. In contrast, traditional campaign contributions must abide by a variety of limits.

These PACs were considered a game-changer, with debate limited only to how much they would change the game. And with a large field of presidential candidates this election season, many speculated that more underperforming campaigns could hang around a little longer, relying on the support of these groups to turn their fortunes around.

Then Scott Walker happened.

The Wisconsin governor was the frontrunner in Iowa, home to the first Republican caucus, from February until early August, according to Real Clear Politics, which aggregates public polls. Then Donald Trump passed him. Then Ben Carson did the same.

By Sept. 21, the day he dropped out of the race, Walker had just 4.5 percent of the support in Iowa, good for seventh place, and even less nationwide.

Since announcing his candidacy, Walker’s lasted just 70 days. By some measures, his campaign was the shortest since 1976, according to the Wall Street Journal. A super PAC supporting him sat on more than $20 million (although it’s unknown how much it had spent) and had planned to focus its advertising on Iowa and New Hampshire. Now it is slowly closing its doors and will return remaining funds to its donors.

Along with Walker, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s candidacy was long on hype and short lived in the race for president. Perry, who previously ran in 2012, was touted as a new candidate this time around. Super PACs had about $13 million to support his election. It didn’t matter.

These former candidates’ campaigns have already been dissected at length. For Walker, pundits pointed to his series of alleged gaffs. For Perry, he just couldn’t gain traction in a crowded field and voters had been there, done that.

More thoughtful analysis, however, highlighted the limits of super PACs backing weak candidates. These PACs aren’t allowed to coordinate with candidates. More importantly, they can’t pay for campaign staff, travel or office space. Campaign fundraising still matters, and both Perry and Walker were struggling to pay their bills and PACs couldn’t pay them.

Former George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer had helped the Republican National Committee analyze the 2012 GOP election and concluded that rich donors propping up underperforming candidates through Super PACs “weakens our eventual nominee.”

Fleischer told Politico that while he was saddened by Walker’s exit, “it’s healthy because Super PACs alone should not keep candidates in the race if they can’t stay in by themselves.”

The game has changed, but perhaps not as much as we once thought.

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