Why Super PACs Are Good for Democracy

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Feb. 13 2012 7:58 PM

Why Super PACs Are Good for Democracy

They’ve made the race for the White House a lot more fair.

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Casino mogul and billionaire campaign contributor Sheldon Adelson in 2011.

Photo by Mike Clarke/AFP/Getty Images.

The call came in from the “blocked” number, and like a fool I answered it.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at daveweigel@gmail.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.

“Mr. Weegal? Why-gell? Hi, I’m calling on behalf of Russ Feingold and the Progressives United PAC.”

If I made a donation, I would help the former senator combat corporate personhood and save America from the Citizens United decision. The super PACs would be humbled. Feingold could continue accusing the president of “dancing with the devil” when he courts the Supers.

The solicitor seemed like a very nice person, with a lousy job; I don’t donate to political causes. (There is a hint for you here, Ron Paul’s Campaign for Liberty.) Unfortunately for the cause, it’s getting harder to argue that super PACs have horribly degraded our elections. In this first presidential election since the dawn of the supers, they have actually—and probably by accident!—given us a more competitive, transparent Republican primary. They are, in a sense, a good thing for our democracy.

Start with the “competitive” part. Subtract the super PACs, and Mitt Romney would have outraised his Republican competitors by a factor of at least 2-1, in most cases 5-1. In 2011, Romney’s campaign raised $56.5 million and spent $36.6 million. His closest competitor, Ron Paul, raised $25.9 million and spent $24.0 million. The two of them, who’d built national fundraising networks in 2008, raised more than the rest of the Republican field combined—$80.5 million to roughly $73.6 million.

Add in the super PAC money and the advantage fades. Romney’s campaign had outspent Newt Gingrich’s campaign by a 7-2 margin and outspent Rick Santorum’s by a 19-1 margin. According to the Sunlight Foundation, which has tracked the super PACs all year, the Romney-centric Restore Our Future PAC outspent the pro-Gingrich Winning Our Future PAC only 2-1. It outspent the Santorum-philic Red, White and Blue fund by slightly better than 8-1, which was just what the PAC needed to spend to get its candidate into an Iowa tie.

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“Take away the super PACs, and Santorum would have probably had to drop out after Iowa,” says Bill Allison, editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation. “Gingrich might have had to drop out after South Carolina.”

The super PAC critics aren’t moved by the election results: The PACs are rotten and unfair. In the words of Democracy Now producers, the PAC money comes from a “secretive coterie” of donors. In the terrific coinage of Mother Jones editors, it’s “dark money,” a Lovecraftian monster that moves from state to state, dissolving the foundations of the republic.

It is too secretive. Most campaign money is. But here’s the twist: There’s more information out there about super PAC donors than there is about virtually any other kind of campaign fundraising. Maybe it’s the novelty, maybe it’s the size of the checks, but the rise of the super PAC has come with constant, clickable scrutiny from the Fourth Estate.

The best example of this: Winning Our Future and Sheldon Adelson. When the New York Times’ Nick Confessore and other reporters started chasing rumors that Adelson’s network backed Gingrich, the casino magnate (net worth $22 billion or so) came under close scrutiny. Every major newspaper profiled him. At press events, Gingrich was asked about him. A quick Lexis-Nexis search tells us that Adelson has been mentioned on 189 news broadcasts since the start of 2012, almost all of them in relation to the Gingrich money.