A recent Supreme Court decision that allows corporate donations to groups independent of candidate campaigns has led to many new political action committees (PACs) to take advantage of the decision. These new PACs have been dubbed “super-PACs” and promise to have a significant influence on the 2012 elections.
In Citizens United v. FEC (2010), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Congress violated the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment when it restricted corporations, labor unions and nonprofit organizations from spending money independent of a candidate's campaign to influence an election.
Political speech is indispensable to democracy, the Court said, and that does not become less true when the speech comes from the association of individuals in corporations, labor unions and nonprofit groups.
Only individuals and PACs can give directly to a candidate's campaign, and each of those contributions is limited. Corporations, labor unions and nonprofit groups are allowed, however, to spend money on “issue ads” during an election, as long as those ads do not explicitly endorse a candidate.
This creates a situation where the super-PACs will likely raise and spend more money than the campaigns themselves.
While there can be no official ties between a candidate's campaign and a super-PAC, watchdog groups have begun to speculate about which groups are organized to help get certain candidates elected.
OpenSecrets.org, a project of the Center for Responsive Politics, has been attempting to track super-PACs. However, the non-coordination requirement makes drawing connections between a super-PAC and a campaign difficult.
For instance, “Restoring the Future” is a super-PAC that is believed to support former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, because it is run by one of Romney's former staffers. Indeed, each of the top presidential contenders, Romney, Texas Governor Rick Perry, Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and Texas Congressman Ron Paul, have had a former staffer leave the campaign to start a super-PAC. With the fundraising advantages inherent in super-PACs, to not have one “unofficially” supporting one's campaign would be a type of disarmament.
Since ads run by a super-PAC have no official ties to a campaign, they can engage in political advertising that says something negative about a candidate without the candidate that the super-PAC supports being associated with the ad. Voters generally complain about these types of ads, but the ads have proven effective in political campaigns.
“Restoring the Future,” the Romney-associated super-PAC, has raised the most money of any super-PAC, bringing in about $12 million. “Make Us Great Again,” a super-PAC with ties to Rick Perry, recently announced a goal of raising $55 million.