Ask almost any left-leaning person about money in politics, and they’ll tell you: Super PACs are a problem.
The committees, often controlled by corporations or moneyed special interest groups, can spend as much as they want on any candidate without much disclosure. Those qualities, they say, give Big Money too much influence over our political process. In other words, the left often argues, super PACs just have too much power over the outcome of our elections.
But do they?
At least after Tuesday night, it doesn’t seem so. In New Hampshire, during the second presidential primary in the nation, voters came out in droves to cast ballots for two candidates who don’t have super PACs. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who has decried the influence of Super PACs and raises money almost exclusively from individual donors, won the state’s Democratic vote by a landslide. Billionaire Donald Trump, who uses a lot of his own money to fund his campaign, won by a similarly staggering margin.
On the other hand, candidates with big, well-funded super PACs have done poorly. Sen. Marco Rubio’s super PAC has raised about $30 million, and yet he placed 5th in New Hampshire and 3rd in Iowa. Hillary Clinton’s super PAC has raised more than $45 million, and yet she just barely beat Sanders in Iowa and lost badly in Iowa. Carly Fiorina’s and Chris Christie’s super PACs raised $13 million and $19 million respectively, but both earned no delegates in New Hampshire and ultimately dropped out of the race.
That’s not even counting Jeb Bush, who is possibly the most glaring example of someone with a hugely funded but so far meaningless super PAC. His super PAC, Rise to Rise, has raised more than $100 million — more than any candidate — and yet he came in fourth in New Hampshire and sixth in Iowa. As the Huffington Post noted, he and Right to Rise spent about $1200 per vote in New Hampshire and $2800 per vote in Iowa.
NH Combined campaign/SuperPAC spending
— Stephen Hayes (@stephenfhayes) February 10, 2016
So what does that mean, if anything?
Candice Nelson, a professor of government at American University and campaign finance expert, says the lack of super PAC influence on the outcomes of Iowa and New Hampshire are certainly surprising. But she cautions not to read too much into it. After all, it’s still pretty early — there are still 48 states to go in the presidential primaries.
“It’s interesting that super PACs have not played a very large role thus far in this election, and I think those of us who followed this thought that they would,” she told ThinkProgress on Wednesday. “But that’s not to say that they won’t going forward, or won’t in the general election.”
Nelson said that super PACs may become more visibly influential during a general election, where they can spend all their resources targeting one person, or one issue. At this early stage in the game, she noted, it’s hard for super PACs to spend money effectively — especially in the Republican field, where there are still so many candidates running.
“Right now, it’s like — who does the super PAC run ads against?” Nelson told ThinkProgress. “In the past, what they’ve been good at is drawing contrast and doing the opposition work. And when you’ve got such a crowded field, who does Right to Rise run ads against? Cruz , Rubio, Kasich, Trump? It’s hard to figure out what to do.”
In addition, it’s not like money hasn’t helped Trump or Sanders — it’s just that the money supporting them is coming directly from their own campaigns, and not super PACs. In New Hampshire, Trump spent $3.7 million, according to a study done by Morning Consult. Sanders spent $8.1 million.
There are however, lessons to be learned from how the presidential race has played out so far. For one, Nelson said, it’s become increasingly clear that super PACs and the money they spend can’t hold candidates together on their own.
“If the candidate doesn’t have a message that resonates with people, the super PAC can’t make up for that,” she said. “And I think that’s what we’ve seen so far.”
Bush is the most striking example of that, Nelson said. When the former Florida governor launched his campaign in June 2015, pundits widely expected he’d be a top contender for the Republican nomination. Part of that was because of his super PAC, Right to Rise, and the exorbitant amount of money it had raised since it formed in 2014.
But once September hit, expectations began to change. Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker — both who had had significant war chests buried in super PACs — dropped out of the race. Bush was slumping in the polls. Meanwhile, super PAC-less Trump had been at the top of the polls for months. And Sanders was gaining on Clinton on the Democratic side.
“The assumption going in to 2016 was that you couldn’t win without a super PAC,” Nelson said. But as the race has worn on, she said, a lesson has emerged: “You can’t just have a super PAC. There’s more to a campaign.”
Meanwhile, the actual “anti-super PAC” message seems to be resonating with voters. Across New Hampshire and Iowas, voters said they were casting ballots for Sanders because of his stance against “big money,” particularly money in politics. With regard to campaign finance, Trump supporters often say the same.
Still, despite this year being “different” — particularly in New Hampshire — Nelson warned not to discount the future impact of big money on the presidential race. Just because voters are resonating with the anti-super PAC message, she said, doesn’t mean they won’t be swayed by their tactics later.
“They haven’t played as much of a role as we all thought they would a year ago, but nine months for now, who knows,” she said. “Clearly anything is possible.”