Meet the PACs

I’ve been watching Meet the Press for a few years now and though I feel it’s lost some lustre since Tim Russert’s passing it nevertheless remains one of the few arenas that can get away with fairly hard-hitting questions and still attract serious political wattage. Sunday’s episode was particularly star-studded–yes, I do think I am into this a little too much–featuring Sen. John McCain and Sen. Fred Thompson squaring off as surrogates for Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, respectively, followed by David Axelrod down from Chicago. The panel was also pretty impressive, with Joe Scarborough, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Chuck Todd. Goodwin’s easily one of my favorite pundits; her book on Lincoln, Team of Rivals, is a pretty remarkable work.

Meet the Press January 29th, 2012 - via

I can’t imagine what must’ve been going through McCain’s mind during the interview. It’s no secret he dislikes Mitt Romney, and he’s never parsed his words about it. The NYT has him previously describing Romney as someone who’d “say anything to win the nomination” and who, apparently, “is lacking a soul”. But I’d say he performed decently, focusing on Gingrich’s weaknesses and brushing off Gregory’s quip on how Thompson’s critique echoed the statements McCain himself made about Romney in ’08. This was the latest round in what had been a three-day spree by the GOP establishment firing squad, during which everyone from Bob Dole to Ann Coulter unloaded on Gingrich’s issues from his abrasive tenure in Congress to his lobbying ties to K Street. It really has been quite the spectacle. You know you’re doing something right (or very, very wrong) when even Glenn Beck calls you “the only candidate [he] cannot vote for”. I’m presuming President Obama’s also on that very short list.

Most of the media’s been crediting this establishment assault on the narrative as what propelled Romney back to his lead over Gingrich in Florida. He’s now polling back at where he was, averaging about 11 points ahead in RCP’s aggregate with as high as 15 points up in the NBC/Marist poll. What’s more amazing to me than this swing back to the lead is the extreme volatility in polling over the past week. Gingrich was up 7-10 points just a week ago. We’ve seen such fluctuation before, with Bachmann, Perry, and Cain et al. This is an electorate that can’t make up its mind.

(Poll results courtesy of RealClearPolitics)

In my short time following these elections I’ve never seen polling numbers this wild. A lot of it may have to do with Romney–he seems to have a solid floor of 30-35% from the states that have gone up for caucuses/primaries thus far. But there is a good 10-15% that keeps floating between him and the next alternative, whether it’s Gingrich or Bachmann from way back when, in addition to the good 20-25% still sticking with Santorum and Paul (combined). I’ve said it before but it bears repeating: Gingrich and Santorum are catering to the same crowd, and the minute one of them drops out the other gets those votes, which if the poll numbers are at all accurate gives the remaining candidate a base that places him neck and neck with Romney. I’m sure this is what Gingrich’s people are perceiving to be his path to the nomination. (Or Santorum’s, who I’m sure are just waiting in the wings for Newt to fully implode).

However there were some numbers briefly shown in Sunday’s Meet the Press that deserve much more attention than Romney’s reinjection into front-runner status, and those were the amounts spent by both campaigns–and their Super PACs–into Florida’s advertising markets: $15.3 million for Mitt, $3.9 million for Newt. Here are more numbers that might give you some pause, via USA Today:

  • Romney and his super PACs have aired 12,768 ads in Florida compared to 210 for Gingrich and his groups.
  • Romney/his super PACs have spent $6.28 million in ads in the past week alone, $4 million of which came from his PAC directly. This is compared to $700,000 spent by Gingrich and $1.5 million by his PAC, Winning Our Future.
  • So far, super PACs have spent a total of $15.2 million on campaign ads compared to $13.7 million raised by the candidates themselves.
  • Super PAC spending has grown from 3% of total ad airings in 2008 to 44% in 2012.

The stroke of luck that won Gingrich in South Carolina–a last-minute $5 million contribution by Sheldon Adelson, a billionaire friend–is not only coming back to haunt him, but is also rapidly becoming the norm.

What we’re witnessing here is the dawn of the Super PAC. I’m not exaggerating when I say this is the beginning of a new era in American politics, birthed by the single swing vote in Citizens United. The Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in that case will have repercussions far beyond the similar 5-4 decision that gave Bush the presidency in 2000.

We’re now noticing its effects, but whether because we’ve been inured by constant media bombardment or are just paralyzed knowing that Citizens United would take a herculean effort to reverse–possibly only through a new case in a reconfigured court, a filibuster-proof Democratic House (if even that), or a constitutional amendment, all of which are nigh impossible–we’re simply sitting back and watching this unfold. Major news outlets mention Super PACs but either with understated emphasis or as if they’ve already become an accepted part of the process. Even the New York Times is attributing Romney’s last-minute surge to his debate performances, which certainly helped, but in any other context could in no way have given him a 20-point swing in a matter of days. And we’ve seen this happen before. Gingrich’s overnight lead in South Carolina was also purportedly due to a strong debate, which was curious since he’d always had strong debate performances; it was doubly curious that the surge occurred shortly after Adelson’s $5 million donation, which allowed Gingrich to flood South Carolina with ads that Romney had little time to tackle.

Sheldon Adelson, Gingrich

The greater likelihood is that it was–as it’s always been–all about the money. Except with Citizens United the very tenuous wall that progressives have tried in the past to erect between finance and government is all but gone, allowing a deluge of literally limitless money into the political process. I apologize for sounding apocalyptic but the importance of that landmark case cannot be understated. We’re just at the beginning of this and it’s about to get much, much worse. Factually inaccurate, twenty-minute long advertisements disguised as documentaries and aired on major networks will become the norm. Campaign costs will skyrocket, and billion-dollar fundraising hauls will seem unimpressive before long. Eventually what will matter is not the number of votes you can get but the number of wealthy patrons you can prostrate before, because as the recent weeks’ polling has shown us, public opinion is easily malleable when you have the means to air anything you want with no repercussion.

But to a politics buff, the more intriguing phenomenon would perhaps be the idea that political parties are about to become obsolete. McCain alluded to this during Meet the Press when he mentioned, in a passing thought, that these PACs are usurping what parties traditionally have done–primarily, providing candidates with operational and financial support. As Occupy Wall Street has shown us, the cost of grassroots mobilization has decreased exponentially. And as Gingrich’s win in South Carolina has proven, the party establishment is no longer necessary in winning a key primary state. All he needed was some pocket change from a billionaire whose net worth, in 2008, has been pegged as high as $26 billion.

This is a topic that very much warrants greater attention and I hope you continue to indulge me as I explore in future posts what Super PACs are, what they do, and what I perceive their impacts will be to American democratization–‘democratization’ because it continues to be a process, albeit one the course of which has been perversely altered by Citizens United. Campaign finance is an integral aspect of any electoral process because democracy hinges on the availability of information, and whoever has the upper hand in disseminating–and fictionalizing–such information will always have a formidable advantage. And we’ve seen in these last two weeks that’s often enough to win a state, perhaps even a party’s nomination.