The ‘No Super PAC’ oath is dead
The Democratic primary kicked off with every major candidate vowing to reject the influence of wealthy donors and to refuse backing from super PACs. It did not last. In the two weeks before Super Tuesday, just three super PACs spent over $18 million with support of candidates who had previously derided these organizations funded by major donors.
In some ways, this notable shift shows how money in elections is an arms race. Once big money lines up behind one candidate, the pressure builds on others to match that spending. Money is necessary to remain viable, even if it does not always determine electoral outcomes. But the death of the “No Super PAC” pledge also indicates that our system needs reforms that go beyond such voluntary pledges and virtuous practices.
The first crack in this pledge came from Joe Biden. In late October, with Biden starting to slip in the polls, his campaign dropped its super PAC opposition and invited the backing of Unite the Country, a super PAC financed by longtime funders of the former vice president. Unite the Country has since spent $9 million on national ads backing Biden.
In December, Vote Vets endorsed Pete Buttigieg, then hired one of his fundraisers. In January, the super PAC began airing ads backing him, as major donors began funding it for the first time. As the primaries started, his campaign not only embraced support from Vote Vets, but illegally requested it. Vote Vets spent over $3 million backing Buttigieg.
Then there was Michael Bloomberg, effectively a one man super PAC. He skipped the first four primaries, but by February, his nearly half billion in spending began to have an impact. While his $500 million did not buy the election, it did drive up the costs of campaigning, an effect analogous to that of super PACs swarming a race, putting pressure on other candidates to turn to wealthy donors to break through his powerful ad blitz.
Elizabeth Warren, who had led the pack in voluntary campaign finance pledges, changed course in February, when the Persist PAC was formed to support her campaign. Warren said it cannot be the case that “a bunch of people” keep super PACs and “only one or two” do not. In just two weeks, Persist PAC spent nearly $15 million backing Warren in the race.
It would be an overstatement to say Bernie Sanders has zero super PAC support, but his ability to raise millions of dollars from small donors has allowed him to refuse big money, and his outside support operates on a very different scale. Sanders helped start Our Revolution four years ago, and his close ties to the nonprofit, which partially obscures donors, has raised legal concerns, although so far it appears to have spent relatively little on this race. There is also an assemblage of PACs which together have reported spending more than $1 million promoting Sanders.
Sanders has not rejected these groups, but the amount that super PACs backing him have collectively spent over the entire cycle is matched or eclipsed by the amount spent over the past two weeks by a super PAC of any other candidate. However, his opponents have formed at least two big money groups against him. The Big Tent Project, created in February, has spent nearly $5 million opposing Sanders. As a “dark money” nonprofit, its donors remain hidden from the general public. The Democratic Majority for Israel has also spent more than $1 million opposing Sanders.
So even candidates who can amass enough small donations to reject big money support cannot stop special interests from financing millions in super PAC opposition. Candidates who reversed their pledges claim to have only done so grudgingly. That may be the case, but those elected with big money backing are more likely to maintain the political system that helped send them to office. Candidates elected with the outsized support of a small number of billionaires and millionaires will also face pressure to avoid policies adverse to those wealthy donor interests.
Voters are skeptical of candidates who embrace special interests, but we must demand more than voluntary pledges. We must demand systemic reform to prevent billionaires from drowning out the voices of the rest of us. A year ago this week, the House passed the For the People Act, which would go a very long way toward just that. Among other things, it would require super PACs to remain independent of candidates and require that dark money groups disclose big donors. Finally, the bill would institute a system of public financing to amplify the voices of small donors, making it much easier for candidates to mount viable campaigns funded by average people, without having to rely on such wealthy donors and super PACs.
Brendan Fischer is director of federal reform at Campaign Legal Center.