Republican leadership candidate Newt Gingrich used the debate stage this week to deliver charged performances that electrified South Carolina audiences ahead of Saturday’s primary – but the second-coming of Newt happened after a barrage of attack ads that sowed doubt in the minds of voters in December.
At the time, the former congressman and speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives was surging in the polls. A slew of TV attacks ads in Iowa and New Hampshire left his poll numbers plummeting.
“You know what makes Barack Obama happy?” the narrator asks in the attack ad. “Newt Gingrich’s baggage. Newt has more baggage than the airlines.”
Attack ads are nothing new.
What is new is the political fundraising vehicle that is driving the negative ads with millions of dollars. The super political action committee, or Super PAC as they are called, act as a surrogate for the candidate, often pulling in far more money than the candidate’s own campaign and waging a withering line of attack on the airwaves against opponents.
A political candidate’s own political action committee (PAC) is limited to receiving contributions of $2,500 and less, and there are strict rules on the disclosure of donors.
But a Super PAC, which is the new entity that emerged out of a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, faces no restrictions on fundraising and often there are loop-holes that allow Super PACs to conceal the identity of donors. They are not permitted, however, to contribute directly to a candidate’s campaign or co-ordinate with any of the candidates.
Saturday is primary day in South Carolina, but the date also marks a key anniversary in emergence of this new political force: Exactly two years ago, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling paved the way for the Super PACs that are now testing their strength and transforming the political campaigns of 2012.
What was behind the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2010?
Believe it or not, a documentary about Senator Hillary Clinton was at the centre of a dispute that led to key changes in U.S. election finance law.
In 2008, when the former first lady was running to lead the Democrat party in the presidential election, a conservative advocacy group and nonprofit corporation made a deal with a cable television operator to provide a documentary called Hillary: The Movie on demand to viewers. Television ads would promote the documentary.
A trailer of the film by Citizens United leaves little doubt: the documentary was meant to discredit Ms. Clinton’s candidacy and uses clips by Barack Obama, former Democrat presidential hopeful Senator John Edwards, and conservative voices such as Mr. Gingrich, to paint an unflattering portrait.
The broadcast was blocked by the courts under federal election laws that prohibit corporate-funded “electioneering communications” a month before a primary and two months before a general election.
Citizens United objected to the ruling and on Jan. 21, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a lower-court ruling and stated that there was a constitutional right for individuals and corporations, whether for-profit or non-profit, to invest unlimited millions on election spending, including broadcasting election ads.
What role have Super PACs played in the Republican race?
Conservative and liberal Super PACs have raised and spent more than $30-million so far in the 2012 election cycle with conservative groups leading the way in total fundraising, according to the Centre for Responsive Politics, which tracks election finance spending.
The key Super PAC in the GOP leadership race has been Restore our Future, which has spent more than $11-million and is run by key allies of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.
It was behind the blistering campaign against Newt Gingrich in December of 2011 and in to January.
Mr. Gingrich complained about the attack ads during the campaign, and as the results came in on election night in Iowa on January 3rd, he told supporters: “We survived the biggest onslaught in the history of the Iowa primary.”
But Mr. Gingrich’s supporters have not been sitting on their hands. Winning our Future, the pro-Gingrich Super PAC, was behind its own blistering attack on Mr. Romney.
The Super PAC spent $5-million to buy a documentary about Mr. Romney’s tenure as head of the investment firm Bain Capital, attacking his business record and claim to have created over 100,000 jobs.
The trailer promoting the documentary leaves little doubt about the line of attack: Mr. Romney’s business leadership was, in fact, the behaviour of a “corporate raider” whose actions resulted in the loss of jobs and suffering. It was, the ad alleges, a display of ruthlessness worse than anything on Wall Street.
No one has highlighted the contradictions of the super PAC system more than comedian Stephen Colbert, who has mocked the anti-coordination rule at the heart of the system – that candidates cannot coordinate with those running a Super PAC supporting their candidacy.
So as not to fall foul of federal election rules, he transferred the day to day running of his Super PAC to the Daily Show’s John Stewart, as Mr. Colbert mulled a presidential run. The Super PAC’s new name: “Definitely Not Coordinated with Stephen Colbert Super Pac.”
What role will Super PACs play in the November 2012 presidential election?
President Barack Obama raised and spent more than $750-million for his 2008 election bid. By all accounts, his campaign will exceed that amount.
But Mr. Obama came out strongly against the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that paved the way for Super PACs, and it is still unclear whether he will allow his surrogates to build a substantial Super PAC war chest aside from his own campaign fundraising.
The Obama campaign team is watching the GOP race and the role of Super PACs closely.
In South Carolina, for the first time in the GOP race, Super PAC spending on TV ads has exceeded spending by the candidates’ own campaigns on TV ads, according to a political ad tracking firm CMAG.
“I don’t think the president is just ambivalent about his Super PAC. He’s flat-out opposed to it,” former South Carolina Democratic chairman Dick Harpootlian and member of the Obama campaign’s national finance committee told Politico.com. “I was at the national finance committee in Chicago, and these are the people with these connections, and nobody was talking, even behind the scenes, about writing checks to the Super PAC,” he said.
“That’s a problem. We didn’t make the rules. The president has called out the Supreme Court on Citizens United to their faces. … But it’s the state of play now, and we have to look at what Romney’s PAC did to Newt in Iowa. It’s dangerous. We can’t unilaterally disarm.”