Super PACS let corporations and groups influence U.S. elections in many ways. Here’s why super PACS exist and how they work.
Super PACs Basics
Super PACs (Political Action Committees) were born in 2010, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations have the same speech rights as individuals. The court’s controversial decision effectively nullified The Tillman Act, which regulated political contributions in the U.S. for 107 years.
Super PACs exist only in the U.S., where they:
- Can raise unlimited sums from corporations, unions and individuals
- Are controlled by independent committees- not the politicians who are running for office
- Spend their money buying ads to advocate or attack candidates or build support for political positions
Who Runs Super PACs And How Much Money Is Donated?
There are about 2,300 super PACs in the U.S., supporting various conservative and liberal political causes.
The total money raised in 2016 (July figures) by the organizations was over $940 million, according to the non-profit watchdog Open Secrets.
- Almost half of their funds come from just 50 donors
- Of the top 10 organizations, around $320 million went to conservative organizations, while a little more than $130 million went to liberal ones
- Donors who champion specific industries often contribute. For instance, in 2015 $62 million associated with fossil fuel supporters flowed into similarly-aligned PACs
Super PACs must be registered with the Federal Election Commission, and can only take money donated by U.S. entities or residents. Run by committees that are responsible for their operations, some have been criticized for a lack of transparency about their donors, and for richly rewarding committee members.
Super PACs are also criticized by advocates of election reform, who argue that the organizations pervert the electoral process and give large “mega-donors” unfair influence in elections.
How Do Super PACs Spend Their Money?
The majority of Super PAC money goes to advertising, including:
- Ads that support specific candidates and issues
- Attack ads that target opponents
Though they can’t donate directly to any one candidate, the organizations have a limitless capacity to fund the way that any given candidate is packaged, advertised, and sold to voters.
According to PRwatch, a national non-profit organization that focuses on funding in politics and election campaigns, a whopping $482 million of Super PAC funds were dispensed to about six media companies who then used it to fund television ads, mailing lists, time slots, and an overall media barrage.
What It All Means
Despite their wealth, Super PACs are not a guaranteed path to success, with many having a surprisingly poor track record.
For instance, during the 2015-2016 Republican presidential primary, traditional-leaning Republican Super PACs poured millions into ads to defeat Donald Trump, without any effect.
In the previous election cycle. Mitt Romney outnumbered Obama’s Super PAC funding significantly, but Romney still lost by an overwhelming electoral vote of 332 to 206.
However, the organizations often have more success influencing less-contested or more localized elections.
Though often ineffective in their efforts to change national political outcomes, Super PAC mega donors still enjoy enormous political influence and are vigorously courted by fundraisers.