Is Super PACs’ Influence on the 2012 Presidential Election Overhyped?

From candidate discounts to crowded airwaves, Ben Jacobs on what could lessen their impact this fall.

Matt Rourke / AP Photos

Fear is growing that well-funded super PACs will dominate the general election in the fall. After all, these nominally independent organizations can take unlimited corporate money and run negative advertisements without restriction as a result of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision. And in the GOP primaries, super PACs have drawn as much notice as the candidates’ campaigns. Their attack ads, from the anti–Mitt Romney “King of Bain” to the barrage that sent Newt Gingrich from first to fourth in Iowa, have received even more attention than the candidates’ own commercials and helped determine the primary results.

The GOP primaries, along with President Obama’s decision last week to support his affiliated super PAC, have raised the ominous specter of a campaign waged between super PACs, not candidates, in November. But while Obama and the eventual GOP nominee will be backed by cash-rich and nominally independent outside groups, the influence of super PACs is likely to be significantly reduced in the general election. They will still be important, but, for a number of reasons, they will not be as decisive in determining the victor.

Lowest Unit Rate

Unbeknownst to most voters, political campaigns get a subsidy to run television ads. By FCC regulation, television stations have to sell advertising slots to candidates for both federal and state office at the “lowest unit rate” within 60 days of a general election and 45 days of a primary. The discount consists of “the lowest rate charged to the best advertiser, taking into account all advertising,” said broadcast-law specialist David Oxenford, a Washington, D.C.–based partner at the firm of Davis, Wright, Tremaine and regular contributor to Broadcast Law Blog. Thus, if a station advertises a deal where purchasers receive 10 advertising slots for the price of nine, a political campaign would get that same discount, even if it buys time to air its commercial only once. Super PACs don’t get the discount; they have to pay the same rates as everyone else, making the cost of super-PAC ad buys significantly higher than that of a campaign.

Candidate Priority

If television stations get less revenue broadcasting candidate advertisements, why do they bother to do it? It’s simple: they don’t have a choice. The government also mandates that stations provide “reasonable access” to federal candidates. Stations have to allow campaigns for federal office to buy time and cannot censor their ads, regardless of content. With state and local campaigns, they merely have to treat them equally: if one candidate for state Senate is allowed to advertise in primetime, all candidates must be allowed to do so. However, super PACs are not guaranteed any access. Television stations can turn down their ads for any reason or shunt them into any time spot. One prominent example of this practice, in August, was a Des Moines television station’s refusal to air an ad from Stephen Colbert’s super PAC. And unlike campaign ads, if potentially libelous super-PAC ads are aired, television stations can be held liable.

Limited TV Time

While super PACs can raise an unlimited amount of money, the amount of time available to advertise on television is finite. Even prior to this cycle, campaigns and outside groups have had difficulty finding enough available time for advertising. Rob Collins, a consultant with Purple Strategies, noted that the American Action Network, the GOP 501(c)(4) he ran in 2010, had to be refunded for tens of thousands of dollars in ad time bought in two major House races in rural Virginia that year. It turned out that there was no time available for the commercials to air before Election Day.

Such situations will likely recur throughout much of the country in the general-election campaign. “A lot of states are going to start looking like the early primary states in terms of advertising,” said longtime Democratic ad man Tad Devine. That means a return to the political clutter normally seen prior to the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, when a half-dozen presidential candidates from each party may be competing. Trying to saturate the airwaves may even backfire. After all, as Collins noted, a campaign can only make “so many contacts until your supporters [start] to hate you.”

Some super-PAC attention will be devoted to creating and airing targeted spots, said Devine. After all, in an age of proliferating cable networks appealing to specific slices of the population, it is possible to fine-tune advertising to a degree unprecedented in the past. But it will also lead to a more scattershot approach.

Devine pointed out that campaign ads normally “aggregate around news, early day shows, [and the] fringe of primetime.” The increased demand may force campaigns and super PACs into the far more expensive primetime slots, not to mention programs that reach less desirable demographics for voters. Even before the Citizens United decision, media buyers were forced to buy time willy-nilly rather than strategically during a preelection crunch. In this general-election season, such panic buys will become more common.

Down-Ballot Races

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Longtime campaign-finance advocate Fred Wertheimer, founder and president of Democracy 21, said he fears that super PACs could have “disproportionate and undue influence” on House and Senate races. “If you have a House race where each candidate has $1 million, and a super PAC comes in and spends $3 million ... that can have a dominating impact on an election,” he said. But Republican strategist Rick Wilson said he thinks the flood of presidential super-PAC ads could diminish available time for other races and make it “harder to squeeze in” spots for congressional and state legislative races.

While Wertheimer’s and Wilson’s opinions appear contradictory, both may be right. Many competitive congressional races will be in states that will not be competitive in the presidential election, where super PACs can flood the zone with advertising in down-ballot races. But in states where the presidential candidates are competing, it will be more difficult for other super PACs to buy time and stand out from the political clutter.

Other Options for Super-PAC Spending

Another obstacle for super PACs is the simple legal one: they can’t coordinate with campaigns, making it difficult for them to contact voters directly. Phone calls and door-to-door canvassing are labor-intensive, and if the information they produce can’t be shared with the campaign, the result will be a lot of duplicated labor and irritated voters. So with the exception of a paid phone bank hired by the Santorum-affiliated Red White and Blue Fund in Colorado, where the former Pennsylvania senator had virtually no ground game, super PACs have not been reported to be engaging in voter contact during the primaries. Instead, it seems likely that any funds super PACs cannot spend on television ads will be used on direct mail. There is no limit on the amount of mail one can send a voter, and candidates do not get a special discount on postage.

None of this should belittle the impact that super PACs will make in November. They will have an impact—it just won’t be the total game changer that some fear. After all, it’s still the “same battlefield, [just] with potentially some more players,” said Oxenford. The advertisements this year won’t be different from those in the past. They will have the same messages, the same creators, and the same people funding them. There are just going to be more of them.