Posted by Hunter Headapohl on June 29, 2015 in Blog


Since the ruling on Citizens United v. FEC in 2007, billions of dollars have begun to flow into the political process.  Following the ruling, campaigns could be supported by Political Action Committees—colloquially known as super PACs—that can raise unlimited funds to support candidates. As a consequence, candidates have begun to change their behavior and campaign strategies to leverage super PAC funds as much as possible. The most recent and notable example of this is with the run up to former Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s announcement and his affiliated super PAC 'Right to Rise,' which raised over $100 million while Jeb himself had not formally announced a presidential campaign, despite all evidence pointing to his intention to do so.

The reason for such an elaborate tease is a loophole in campaign finance law which allows candidates to raise unlimited funds through super PACS without having to disclose who is behind the donations. Bush and others are incentivized not to announce their candidacy until the last possible moment, because as soon as they do so their PAC can no longer coordinate directly with the campaign. Additionally, the maximum contribution per donor is capped at $5,000 once the campaign is underway.

As a result, massive sums are being pumped into both sides of the electorate, exponentially increasing the role of the war chest in recent election campaigns. As CNN’s Errol Louis describes:

In 2008, the year after Citizens United, more than $300 million from PACs and individual contributions was spent on the race for president. Four years later, that number more than tripled to over $1 billion and some predict spending for 2016 could edge toward $10 billion. The overwhelming majority of these new dollars will be from super PACs.

These organizations also allow major donors to pour unlimited sums of personal money into a candidate’s campaign. The Koch Brothers—business magnates well known for their support of conservative causes—allegedly plan to spend over $900 million in the 2016 presidential election alone. Conservative candidates also participate in what is considered the “Adelson Primary,” an event hosted by pro-Israel billionaire Sheldon Adelson, during which candidates tout their support of Adelson’s interests in return for heavy financial backing.

It’s not just Jeb Bush either. Hillary Clinton—who has herself criticized the Citizens United ruling—is expecting to raise a combined $2.5 Billion for this election, which is more than all the candidates in the 2012 election (including their super PACs) spent combined.

Ted Cruz debuted a novel fundraising approach by introducing multiple, closely affiliated super PACs (All are named some variation of “Keep the Promise”) which Dathan Voelter—the treasurer of the four affiliated organizations—says are designed to give "mega donors more 'influence and control over the expenditures' they are funding." While these organizations cannot coordinate with Ted Cruz directly, they can coordinate amongst each other. The danger is that these organizations essentially function as a secondary campaign. They run ads, attack rivals, and ease the financial burden on a main campaign while not being subject to the same financial regulations.

Understandably, the increasing influence of these super PACs has led to some dubious activities. Recently, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) ordered the “Carly for America” committee, a super PAC supporting republican hopeful Carly Fiorina, to change their name because it uses the candidate’s name in the title. In an almost tongue-in-cheek response, the PAC changed the name to the “Conservative, Authentic, Responsive Leadership for You and for America”—which of course spells out, “CARLY for America.” While one could recognize such farces for what they are and submit complaints to the FEC, the reality is that the FEC is unlikely to finish any investigations into the matter until well after the 2016 election.

As a result, the hold that the FEC had over elections past is reduced. Big, secretive donors can pump unlimited, unregulated funds into political organizations which are “not directly coordinated” with a candidate’s campaign. Candidates that don’t play by these new rules or that can’t find mega-donors of their own are so dwarfed by the amount of money involved that they can’t compete against a candidate with super PAC backing, which from an outside perspective looks a whole lot like trying to buy an election. Whether or not Citizens United is overturned is unclear, but one thing is for certain: billion dollar campaigns are about to become the new normal.

Hunter Headapohl is an intern with the Arab American Institute