Beyond Super PACs

Max Seddon

 Sarah Silverman has offered Sheldon Adelson ‘traditional lesbian sex’ if he gives the $100 million he has pledged to help elect Mitt Romney to Barack Obama instead. In 2008, Silverman focused a similarly mock-serious campaign on Florida’s blue-haired bloc. Then, the comedian's worry was that latently racist elderly swing-state voters could have denied Obama victory; now, the fear is that a single septuagenarian billionaire can do it on his own.

Obama himself, although he looks set to exceed the record $745 million he raised in 2008, has fretted that he may be the first sitting president to be outspent in his re-election campaign – and the candidate with the most money wins 98 per cent of the time.

 Campaign finance has changed since 2008 because of a new kind of organisation known as a Super PAC, created by a 2010 Supreme Court ruling which held that restrictions on political contributions by corporations and unions violated their right to free speech. Removing limits on individual donations has unsurprisingly given more of a boost to Republicans: Restore Our Future, which backs Romney, has spent more than three times as much as the Obama-supporting Priorities USA Action. Many of Obama’s wealthy donors have soured on him; others won’t contribute to Super PACs because they disapprove of them on principle (though Silverman’s video was paid for by one, the Jewish Council for Education and Research).

Super PACs are allowed to raise unlimited funds from any source, as long as they don’t make direct contributions to candidates’ campaigns or parties. So most of their money is spent on attack advertising: more than $137 million so far.

In June, Romney raised more money than Obama for the second month in a row and looked set to benefit from anaemic economic news. The Super PACs spent $30 million between them, but the slew of ads petered out with Obama increasing his lead: of the voters who told a USA Today poll that the ads had convinced them to change their minds, 76 per cent had done so in favour of the president.

Super PACs may not be the malignant threat to democracy that their opponents fear precisely because they spend the vast majority of their money on attack ads. Newt Gingrich, whose Super PAC collected $16.5 million from Adelson, might have done better had he been able to spend the money on employing strategists and ground staff of the sort who helped Rick Santorum win the Iowa primary with far less money.

Only 8 per cent of respondents to the USA Today poll changed their minds after seeing the ads. That’s enough to make a difference in battleground states, but the torrent of advertising means the numbers are likely to drop with each passing barrage. In any case, attack advertising is most memorable when the target’s chances of winning are already slim, as with Johnson’s ‘Daisy’ ad suggesting Goldwater would start a nuclear war, or Bush’s portrayal of John Kerry as an effete Massachusetts liberal with no core convictions.

Super PACs have got most of their money from wealthy individuals currying favour with candidates rather than from the expected corporations, who have shown less interest in spending more and more money to win over fewer and fewer voters. Instead, the smart money is going to bodies classified as ‘social welfare’ organisations which don’t have to disclose who their donors are. We may not know who has given what – and what effect it has – for some time.


  • 26 July 2012 at 2:26am
    Pennywhistler says:
    "In 2008, Silverman’s worry was that latently racist elderly swing-state voters could have denied Obama victory".

    No it wasn't.

    And what an odd anti-semitic insert THAT was. Elderly Jews are racists and wouldn't vote for THAT MAN because he is, you know, one of THEM.

    In fact, in 2008, Silverman's video, The Great Schlep, was an inspired effort by the Jewish Council for Education and Research to get the grandchildren of elderly Jewish voters in Florida to visit their grandparents and persuade them to vote for Obama.

    And how did things turn out? Nationally, that colored professor got 74% of the Jewish vote; 77% of the mostly elderly Jews of Florida.

    BTW - Mr. Obama won only 57% of the Latino vote in Florida, Because they are apparently racist bastards. Or something. Or because they don't have enough comedians. Whatever.

    • 26 July 2012 at 9:01am
      Phil Edwards says: @ Pennywhistler
      No it wasn't

      I've just watched the 2008 video - it's still online here. It's all about combatting anti-Black and anti-Muslim prejudices among elderly Jewish voters in a swing state. From the voting figures, either it was amazingly successful or it wasn't actually needed (I lean towards the latter).

      I think it was probably a better use of the JCER's money than this year's video, though.

  • 28 July 2012 at 5:11am
    John Cowan says:
    In addition, SuperPACs really don't allow much that pre-existing forms of political committees didn't allow before. The right to give to a campaign was effectively unlimited before and it's effectively unlimited now.

  • 28 July 2012 at 1:06pm
    howardinNYC says:
    Observing that racism and pro-zionist feelings exists among elderly Jews is not anti-Semitic. It would be astonishing to claim the opposite. They demonstrably exist, the Obama campaign was worried about it, and they took aim at it. It turned out to be less of a risk than they feared. Notwithstanding the admirable 2008 voting behavior of elderly Jews in Florida, political campaigns don't win by overestimating the moral sentiments of the electorate.

  • 30 July 2012 at 2:57am
    Bob Beck says:
    By "offering" Adelson "traditional lesbian sex," I assume Sarah Silverman means "offering to let him watch"? Otherwise, you'd have to figure it was decidedly non-traditional.

    • 30 July 2012 at 8:35pm
      Bob Beck says: @ Bob Beck
      Scratch that -- I finally watched the video. (Sarah Silverman is a comic genius, but she's almost too good; by which I mean I sometimes get embarrassment cringes from her schtick). I'd never yet heard the word "scissor" in that context.

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