The Era of the Super PAC in American Politics

Why Super PACs are Such a Big Deal in Presidential Elections Now

Young man holding a sign that reads "I'm Ready for Hillary"
Ready for Hillary was a Super PAC that supported Hillary Clinton's bid for president. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

A super PAC is a modern breed of political action committee that may raise and spend unlimited amounts of money from corporations, unions, individuals, and associations to influence the outcome of state and federal elections. The rise of the super PAC marked the beginning of a new era in politics in which the outcome of elections would be determined by the vast sums of money flowing into them. This puts more power into the hands of the wealthy and leaves average voters with little to no influence.

The term super PAC is used to describe what is technically known in federal election code as an "independent expenditure-only committee." These are relatively easy to create under federal election laws. There are 1,959 super PACs on file with the Federal Election Commission. They raised about $1.1 billion and spent about $292 million in the 2020 cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, ("Super PACs").

The Function of a Super PAC

The role of a super PAC is similar to that of a traditional political action committee. A super PAC advocates for the election or defeat of candidates for federal office by purchasing television, radio, and print advertisements as well as other forms of media marketing. There are conservative super PACs and liberal super PACs.

Differences Between a Super PAC and Political Action Committee

The most important difference between a super PAC and a traditional candidate PAC is in who can contribute and how much they can give.

Candidates and traditional candidate committees can accept $2,800 from individuals per election cycle. There are two election cycles a year: one for the primary and one for the general election in November. That means they can take in a maximum of $5,600 a year, split equally between the primary and general election.

Candidates and traditional candidate political action committees are prohibited from accepting money from corporations, unions, and associations. Federal election code prohibits those entities from contributing directly to candidates or candidate committees.

Super PACs, on the other hand, do not have contribution or spending limits. They can raise as much money from corporations, unions, and associations as they please and spend unlimited amounts on advocating for the election and/or defeat of the candidates they choose.

Another difference is that some of the money that flows into super PACs is untraceable. This is often referred to as dark money. Individuals can mask their identities and their contributions to super PACs by giving funds to outside groups which then give the money to a super PAC, a process that is essentially laundering. These groups include nonprofit 501[c] groups and social welfare organizations.

Restrictions on Super PACs

The most important restriction on super PACs prohibits them from working in conjunction with a candidate they're supporting. According to the Federal Election Commission, super PACs cannot spend money “in concert or cooperation with, or at the request or suggestion of, a candidate, the candidate's campaign or a political party,” ("Making Independent Expenditures").

History of Super PACs

Super PACs came into existence in July 2010 following two key federal court decisions. These found limitations on both corporate and individual contributions to be unconstitutional because they violate the First Amendment right to free speech.

In SpeechNow.org v. Federal Election Commission, a federal court found restrictions on individual contributions to independent organizations that seek to influence elections to be unconstitutional. And in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that limits on corporate and union spending to influence elections were also unconstitutional.

“We now conclude that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption,” Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote.

Combined, the rulings allowed individuals, unions, and other organizations to contribute freely to political action committees that are independent of political candidates.

Super PAC Controversies

Critics that believe money corrupts the political process say the court rulings and creation of super PACs opened the floodgates to widespread corruption. In 2012, U.S. Sen. John McCain warned: "I guarantee there will be a scandal, there is too much money washing around politics, and it’s making the campaigns irrelevant."

McCain and other critics said the rulings allowed wealthy corporations and unions to have an unfair advantage in electing candidates to federal office.

In writing his dissenting opinion for the Supreme Court, Justice John Paul Stevens opined of the majority: "At bottom, the Court's opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self-government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt."

Another criticism of super PACs arises from the allowance of some nonprofit groups to contribute to them without disclosing where their money came from, a loophole that allows dark money to flow directly into elections.

Super PAC Examples

Super PACs spend tens of millions of dollars in presidential races.

Some of the most powerful include:

  • Right to Rise, a super PAC that spent more than $86 million supporting former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's failed bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.
  • Conservative Solutions PAC, which spent nearly $56 million supporting U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio's failed bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.
  • Priorities USA Action, which spent more than $133 million supporting Hillary's Clinton's bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016 and backed President Barack Obama in 2012. Another prominent pro-Hillary super PAC is Ready for Hillary.
  • New Day for America, which spent more than $11 million supporting Ohio Gov. John Kasich's campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.

Sources

"Super PACs." Center for Responsive Politics.

"Making Independent Expenditures." Federal Election Commission.