How Super PACs Could Eclipse Official Campaigns in 2012

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Presidential campaigns are so 2008, like boyfriend jeans or Tila Tequila. If you want to win the White House these days, “Super PACs” are the thing to have. And all the Republican hopefuls know it. If current trends continue, the splashiest ads and most aggressive ground campaigns will come from groups officially unaffiliated with any candidate.

Just last week, Jon Huntsman’s ad man, Fred Davis, left the campaign to work for a pro-Huntsman Super PAC, where the lack of limits on campaign contributions will presumably give Davis far more money to work with. This summer, Steve Roche, a top fundraiser for Mitt Romney’s campaign, jumped ship to a pro-Romney Super PAC, Restore our Future, which was founded by Romney’s 2008 campaign treasurer, Charles Spies, and political director, Carl Forti. As Rick Perry prepared his race, his former Chief of Staff, Mike Toomey, set up a pro-Perry Super PAC called Make Us Great Again, with the stated goal of raising $55 million.

All three of the groups are easily capable of raising and spending more money than their official presidential campaign counterparts because they do not have to abide by the $2,500 individual campaign donation limit imposed by Congress. But in look, taste and feel, voters are unlikely to notice the difference between the official campaigns and the outside groups. The strategies will be the same. The messaging will jell. It will all seem like an old story, even though it is anything but.

“The influx of outside groups into the primary is really something groundbreaking and new,” says Paul S. Ryan, an associate council at the Campaign Legal Center. The reason is the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which dramatically redefined the role of unlimited campaign contributions, long viewed as a possibly corrupting influence in the political process. “We now conclude that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption,” the court’s majority decided.

The 2012 election might change those perceptions. Despite the conclusion of the Supreme Court, there is no clear reason contributions to the Super PACs will not have the same effect of buying access to candidates and their staffs that more limited contributions have historically had. The court decision also clears the way for corporations to give money to efforts, potentially concealing the identity of the donors. Campaign finance experts fear that established non-profits, which do not disclose their donors, may be used as pass-throughs to conceal the identity of donors to a Super PAC. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for instance, could legally give money to a Super PAC without disclosing the source of the money, even if it had been earmarked from a specific corporation or wealthy individuals.

Though candidates are officially barred from coordinating strategy with their Super PACs, all of the current presidential campaigns seem intent on pushing the limits of the rules. Not only are staff, who worked in developing campaign strategy, bringing that expertise with them to the supposedly independent groups, but candidates are likely to give public nods of approval to the work of the PACs. In a recent swing through New York, Romney appeared at an event for donors to Restore Our Future. Because he did not specifically ask for checks in excess of federal donation limits for campaigns, he did not break any laws.

There are also many ways for campaigns to effectively coordinate strategy without violating the law. The most obvious is for a campaign to publicly announce its plans, which would allow the PAC to make decisions about where to put its resources and how to shape its message. Also, there can be conversations between the two organizations in broad terms. “There is no law prohibiting conversations between candidates and the Super PACs about general planks in the platform,” says Ryan.

One of the hallmarks of the 2008 campaign, which busted all spending records, was that it was almost entirely conducted inside the established campaign finance regulatory system, with money donated in increments less than $2,300. The effect was to limit the ability of a big-pocketed donor to disproportionately influence the process. In 2012, the landscape will be drastically different.