Sunday, September 30, 2012

One Expensive Shouting Match

What does 5.8 billion dollars buy? Seriously. What does it buy? A ticket to Mars? A professional sports team? An absurd number of fast food hamburgers? In the end, there is a lot you could do with fifty-eight forklift pallets of Benjamin Franklins, but there is one thing 5.8 billion dollars is guaranteed to buy this year: a heck of a lot of political advertising.
In total, 2012’s US federal elections are set to be the most expensive in history with an expected 5.8 billion spent on rallies, registration drives, and advertisements to sway voters. While this only represents a modest seven percent increase over 2008’s 5.4 billion [1], the thing that makes the money in this year’s election so significant is the way in which it is being channeled. Besides personal war-chests and national party support, independent groups are dumping mountains of cash behind candidates. These “Super PACs” and “social welfare organizations” fly by innocuous names (e.g. “Americans for Prosperity”) but have shown their clout by dropping a deluge of negative advertising on their opponents. As a voter, I wanted to learn more about how these organizations came to be, where the mass of funding is coming from, and if their actions are developing a more bitter and polarized campaign.

 Although Super PACs have only become an influential force in the last two election cycles, PACs (Political Action Committees) have been a part of campaign financing for the last sixty-five years. Originally conceptualized as a convenient way for organizations to donate to political campaigns, PAC’s allow businesses, unions, and other groups to pool money from members and make modest, limited donations to political candidates and the national parties [2]. However, this line began to blur in the 2000’s when questions were raised about groups who wanted to spend money advertising for political ideas, but do so independently of any official campaign. These organizations, known as “527s” (named after the section of the tax code which makes them exempt under non-profit status), culminated with the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, who were able to spend as much as they pleased in the 2004 presidential race questioning John Kerry’s morals and leadership ability. An FEC (Federal Election Commission) ruling limited such groups strictly to “issue advocacy” after the race and forbade them from openly criticizing or praising a specific candidate [3], but the laws on independent spending took a drastic shift in 2010 when the Supreme Court ruled on Citizens United v. FEC. This decision overturned two previous verdicts and a federal law by declaring that corporations and businesses have the same speech rights as individuals, and can spend unlimited amounts on election material as long as it isn’t connected to a campaign [4]. A subsequent ruling, Speechnow v. FEC, and an Appellate Court decision, American Tradition Partnership v. Bullock, extended these privileges specifically to individuals and cleared out any laws on pooled independent spending at the state level[5][6]. Thus, Super PACs were born and now raise unlimited funds to broadcast their opinions on candidates for office.
With Super PACs supporting both Republican and Democratic candidates, the question is raised of where the money is coming from. While 2.5 million people across the country have made small donations this cycle ($200 or less), this makes up only 18% of total contributions, and almost all Super PAC funding is coming from mega-donors [8]. The top 20 givers (liberal and conservative combined) have pooled over $120 million so far, and have the power to give more [10]. In addition, if donors wish to remain anonymous in their contributions (something that is almost never allowed in typical campaign spending) many Super PACs also sponsor 527s of the type discussed earlier. These branches are still restricted to issue advocacy only (which translates today into bashing an opponent’s policy), but are allowed to go without disclosing the origins of their funding until after the election [10]. All told, the three largest Super PACs are expected to generate $410 million by election’s end [7].
Although there has been little statistical evidence gathered on the effects Super PAC cash in the 2012 race so far, they frequently engage in tactics which are associated with polarization. First off, in their examination of Richard Nixon’s divisive rhetoric in the 1970 midterm race, Andrew King and Floyd Anderson identify attacking an opponent’s ethos (their beliefs and character) as an essential piece of polarizing strategy [11]. For example, the assault on ethos in the presidential race this cycle has essentially been the Super PAC supporting President Obama claiming former Gov. Romney is callous and out of touch with ordinary Americans, while Romney’s allies paint President Obama as a failure and a big government demagogue. This strategy inadvertently lends itself to a “we vs. them” mentality, an idea discussed by Richard Raum and James Measell in their analysis of the speech techniques of Gov. George Wallace in the 1970’s [12]. In short, one ideology is portrayed as entirely good, anybody who believes the opposite is entirely bad, and moderates left in the middle are to be converted. One particularly powerful conservative Super PAC, American Crossroads, utilized this concept early when it hammered Democratic and moderate Republican House and Senate candidates in the 2010 midterms for any support of the President’s policies. Finally, a theme frequently used in Super PAC advertising is fear. At the presidential level, conservative outside spenders try to make people associate their uncertainty about the economy with the president, and convince them the conservative ideology is the only possible way to return to prosperity. In the end, the ultimate authority on the issue of polarizing rhetoric from Super PACs comes from our class’ interview with Dr. Roderick Hart (Dean of the College of Communication at the University of Texas at Austin, and in general a real smart cookie) in which he specifically called Super PACs’ negative advertising, “a tremendous source of this rhetoric of hate.” [13] (The full interview can be found on our blog.)
After looking into the origins, funding, and tactics of Super PACs, it is clear they have added a drastic new dynamic to campaigning that has been seen in no other period of American history. Whatever may become of them in future elections, these organizations are operating with force in 2012, and stand ready to throw a dash of vinegar into an already sour political atmosphere. So again, what does 5.8 billion dollars buy? Personally, I'd take the hamburgers.
 Examples of Super PAC Ads.


1.      "2012 Election Will Be Costliest Yet, With Outside Spending a Wild Card." - OpenSecrets Blog. Center for Responsive Politics, 1 Aug. 2012. Web. 29 Sept. 2012. <>.

2.      "What Is a PAC?" Money in Politics. Center for Responsive Politics, n.d. Web. 27 Sept. 2012. <>.

3.      York., Michael Luo; Kate Zernike Contributed Reporting From New. "Ready to Attack Obama, If Some Money Arrives." The New York Times. The New York Times, 21 June 2008. Web. 27 Sept. 2012. <>.

4.      Sullivan, Kristin, and Terrance Adams. SUMMARY OF CITIZENS UNITED V. FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION. N.p.: n.p., n.d. SUMMARY OF CITIZENS UNITED V. FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION. State of Conecticut, 2 Mar. 2010. Web. 27 Sept. 2012. <>.

5.      Weiner, Rachel. "Supreme Court’s Montana Decision Strengthens Citizens United." Washington Post. The Washington Post, 25 June 2012. Web. 27 Sept. 2012.

6.      United States Of America. Federal Election Commission. v. FEC Keating v. FEC Case Summary. Federal Election Commission, n.d. Web. 26 Sept. 2012. < v. FEC Keating v. FEC Case Summary>.

7.      Crowley, Michael. "Karl Rove's Return." Time 13 Aug. 2012: 36-40.

8.      Vogel, Kenneth P. "Election 2012: The Myth of the Small Donor." POLITICO. N.p., 8 July 2012. Web. 27 Sept. 2012. <>.

9.       Hirschkorn, Phil. "Top Super PAC Donors Giving Multimillions in 2012." CBSNews. CBS Interactive, 24 Sept. 2012. Web. 29 Sept. 2012. <>.

10.  Avlon, John. "Will Republicans' Vast Super-PAC-Money Advantage Swing the Election?" The Daily Beast. Newsweek/Daily Beast, 05 Sept. 2012. Web. 27 Sept. 2012. <>.

11.  King, Andrew A., and Floyd D. Anderson. Nixon, Agnew, and the "Silent Majority": A Case Study in the Rhetoric of Polarization. Fall 1971. Essay.

12.  Raum, Richard D., and James S. Measell. "Wallace and His Ways: A Study of the Rhetorical Genre of Polarization." Central States Speech Journal 25 (1974): 28-35.

13.  Dr. Roderick Hart. Tape recording interview. Dr. Damien Pfister. 11 Sept. 2012.

Video Used

1.      Crossroads GPS: Obama's Promise. GPS: Obama's Promise. American Crossroads, 16 May 2012. Web. 27 Oct. 2012. <>.

2.      Priorities USA Action: "Briefcase" 2012. Ad. USA Action: "Briefcase" Priorities USA Action, 28 June 2012. Web. 29 Sept. 2012. <>.

3.      Crossroads GPS "Thanks Harry" Ad. 2012. Comercial. GPS "Thanks Harry" Ad. Crossroads GPS, 19 Aug. 2012. Web. 29 Sept. 2012. <>.

4.      Crossroads GPS: "Basketball" 2012. Ad. GPS: "Basketball" Crossroads GPS, 22 May 2012. Web. 29 Sept. 2012. <>.

1 comment:

  1. Your post was very interesting to read. You helped really characterize Super PACs for me, what I previously only understood in the most general sense. The judicial and specific campaign history of Super PACs was, I thought, especially compelling. It gets me thinking about where, specifically, our system might be lacking in terms of campaign funding regulation. It's definitely intriguing to watch those videos after reading your post, considering the, often self-interested, corporate or personal forces behind the divisive rhetoric. As a side note, I thought you wrote extremely well and made a great rhetorical (and professional/ethical) choice, citing so many different valuable sources.