Wealthy activists who want to donate to their favorite politicians beyond the $2,500 annual limit are turning to Super PACs, which can raise and spend unlimited funds as long as they don’t coordinate with a specific candidate. But what about ordinary people who only have $50 or $100 to donate? Is it more effective to give directly to a candidate or to a Super PAC that supports him or her?
It depends. Any candidate would tell you it’s better to give directly to his or her campaign, since the strategists working inside the campaign would know better than anyone what the boss needs to win. In addition, political candidates are entitled by law to buy advertising time at the lowest available rate, so your $50 donation could have more buying power if it’s in your candidate's own hands. You also have more control over your money when you donate to a candidate. For example, if you send a check to Romney and write “Romney 2012 primary” on the memo line, the campaign cannot hold it for the general election or pass it along to other candidates. These restrictions are somewhat illusory, of course, due to the fungibility of money. But, at the very least, you’ll feel like you have some say.
There are some circumstances under which donating to a Super PAC might be the way to go. For example, if you really want the Republicans to retake the Senate, you’re probably better off donating to a conservative Super PAC like Club for Growth Action than to any individual candidate. (Democrats might give to the House Majority PAC.) Super PACs can quickly shift their expenditures to support the candidates who need it most—the ones who are underfunded and in competitive races.
If you want to go negative, then donate to a Super PAC. When your money is used to launch a vicious attacks ad, your candidate can point to the rule against coordination and disavow the advertisement. Most observers think these denials of involvement stretch credulity, and candidates have taken heat for the content of Super PAC advertisements. But these arguments haven’t slowed or softened the attacks.
A Super PAC’s complete legal independence from the candidate can be a problem for picky donors. There’s little to stop a Super PAC from spending your money on causes or candidates you don’t believe in. This is especially true in the primaries, when your favored candidate may drop out of the race, leaving the Super PAC with a decision to make—they can return whatever funds are leftover or find somewhere else to spend the money. When Rick Perry dropped out of the presidential race, the Super PAC Americans for Rick Perry, which had raised $193,000, became the Restoring Prosperity Fund. The group will advocate on behalf of conservative candidates for congress. The 9-9-9 fund still appears to accept donations through its website, even though Herman Cain dropped out of the race on Dec. 3.
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Explainer thanks Richard Briffault of the Columbia Law School. Thanks also to reader Alan Crocker for asking the question.