What’s a Super PAC, anyway? 🤔

By Sarah Mimms

This is part of Countable’s series on campaign finance, where we bring you quick explainers to help you understand how candidates are funding their political campaigns and careers in Washington. Have a question we haven’t covered? Email us here.

Briefly: What is a Super PAC?

Super PACs are organizations that can accept unlimited amounts of money from individuals, corporations and unions to spend in support of or against political candidates. Contrary to common belief, they do have to disclose their donors (we’ll get to “dark money” organizations that don’t have to disclose who’s giving them money in another post). The big rule with super PACs is that they can’t coordinate directly with candidates and campaigns, but those rules are pretty vague and politicians have spent the last few years finding ways to get right up to that line without crossing it. For example, many major super PACs are run by former staffers and close friends of the candidates they support.

What can they do?

Super PACs have to be independent from candidates (the Federal Election Commission refers to their ads as “independent expenditures”), but in reality it doesn’t totally work out that way. That means that these groups can run ads that advocate for or against a candidate, but they can’t get that candidates’ advice on what they want to be in the ad.

They can feature footage of a candidate, which politicians often just leave lying around somewhere on the internet for super PACs to find, but the candidates can’t directly film ads that are paid for by super PACs. You may have seen some of this footage before. CNN found some of Sen. Ted Cruz’s b-roll last year and put together some of the highlights. Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC), who lost her reelection in 2014, put out similar footage and included a voiceover that the Guardian speculates could give super PACs an idea of what kind of messaging to use with it. And The Daily Show (in the Jon Stewart era) asked viewers in 2014 to put different music behind Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s b-roll footage in a contest they called “McConnelling”. (The results are pretty amazing).

Another tactic to get around the independence rule: Candidates and their staff can communicate with super PACs through the media. They can, say, publicly announce that they’re trying to get a specific message out. Or they can casually mention in an interview that they need to spend a bunch of money to run more ads in Florida, a key presidential swing state, for example. If a super PAC just happens to see that in the Wall Street Journal and posts an ad on that message on Florida’s airwaves, that’s not coordination, at least not legally speaking.

A little history

Super PACS came out of two Supreme Court decisions: Citizens United v. FEC, which basically ended all caps on contributions to PACs (Political Action Committees) and allowed corporations and unions to donate unlimited amounts of money to them. That was followed by the lesser-known SpeechNOW v. FEC, in which the Court ruled that individuals could make unlimited donations to these groups as well, which would have to register as “Independent-Expenditure Only groups” with the FEC, or super PACs.

An exception on disclosing donors

We’ll get more into this later in a separate post because it is complicated, but in addition to taking money from everyday Americans and corporations, super PACs can take money from groups that don’t disclose their donors or “dark money” groups. The IRS calls them 501©(4) organizations. As a result, some super PACs will take money from groups with names that don’t really tell you anything, something like Americans for a More American America. They’ll report that AMAA donated to the super PAC, but you won’t be able tell who gave AMAA the money in the first place. Some political scholars are now calling that “grey money”.

Super PACs in 2016

There are 2,316 super PACs that are raising and spending money in the 2016 elections, according to OpenSecrets. Combined, they have spent nearly $480 million in this campaign cycle (Jan. 2015 — Aug. 2016), per OpenSecrets’ tabulations, and they’ve raised more than $936 million in that period. Check out their list of all of those super PACs and how much they’ve spent (and for or against whom) this cycle.

Hillary Clinton is being backed by Priorities USA Action, a Democratic super PAC that was originally formed to support President Obama’s reelection. The group had raised a little over $100 million as of Aug. 8, according to OpenSecrets’ records, and has spent $38.7 million this cycle, the vast majority of which has gone to ads opposing Trump.

Donald Trump is supported by Rebuilding America Now, which was formed in June of this year after he became the GOP’s presumptive nominee. With a lot less time to raise money, RAN has brought in just $2.2 million, per OpenSecrets, and has spent $5.2 million**. Similarly, RAN has spent more money attacking Clinton than supporting Trump, but it’s much closer.

Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson, too, has support from super PACs. The aptly named AlternativePAC has raised about $500,000 and recently reported spending $30,000 on “internet web memes.” Green Party nominee Jill Stein does not have a super PAC.

* Super PACs have to report their independent spending within 48-hours, but they only report their receipts and donors every month or quarter, depending on their preference. That’s why it looks like Rebuilding America Now has spent more money than they’ve taken in.

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