PACs and the Seven Member Club

PACs and the Seven Member Club

R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review Editor

Seven is a memorable number in American history.  There were seven Mercury astronauts.  There have been seven Presbyterians elected President.  The number 7 was worn on the jerseys of baseball legend Mickey Mantle, football great John Elway and hockey powerhouse Phil Esposito.   At the height of their musical fame, there were seven members of Lynyrd Skynyrd.

This year there are seven states which may decide the outcome of the Presidential election for the rest of the country, and Skynyrd’s home state of Florida is one of those chosen battlegrounds.

If you doubt this formulation, just look at the cash spent on advertising: in almost all of those seven states those oft-discussed, infamous billions of dollars are already being deployed.  In fact, the money being spent in July is buying up so much airtime and in so many key TV markets that political ads are bumping up against each other in a continuous chain of negativity, which, combined with the “mute” button creates a kind of theater of the absurd for hapless television viewers in Ohio, Virginia, Florida and Colorado.

Last week, on a trip to north Florida, I witnessed five 30-second ads—three pro-Romney or anti-Obama, and two pro-Obama or anti-Romney—fill-up an entire commercial break on a CBS affiliate.  Even the ubiquitous car dealers seemed at a loss when it came to competing for half a minute of time to assault our frayed nerves.  I was actually relieved during the next local break when an ad for an accident and injury attorney appeared sandwiched between two more campaign ads.  This brought the total number of campaign ads to seven in as many minutes of broadcast time.

Friends in Ohio, Colorado and all across Florida, report enduring much the same phenomena.  Even people living in states adjacent to the battle lines are not safe from the brutal carpet bombing.  If you live along the I-275 Circle Freeway in Covington, Kentucky or Erlanger, Kentucky, the incoming artillery from the Cincinnati TV market means you live with your finger on the remote control.  Television viewers in the southern half of the safe Red states of Georgia and Alabama are subjected to a continuous harangue in the form of ads emanating from the TV stations in Panama City, Tallahassee and Jacksonville.

Normally, this sort of intense attention on the swing states is limited only to the political professionals and full-time analysts.  There are always battleground states, and every election cycle we hear about how the future of the country rests in the hands of specific regional voters.  In 2004 it was Ohio and a smattering of other locations that deprived John Kerry of the presidency and awarded George W. Bush four more years.  In 2000, it all came down to Florida—and enough said on that point.

The Presidential elections of 1940 (FDR versus Wendell Willkie), 1948 (Truman versus Dewey), 1960 (Kennedy versus Nixon), 1968 (a three-way race between Nixon, Humphrey, George Wallace) and 1976 (Carter versus Ford) all involved tight races in key states—places where the tilt of a few thousand votes could change the outcome for everyone.   It was thus for much of the Twentieth Century, and had it not been for Florida’s cliffhanger in 2000, average American voters wouldn’t necessarily give this much thought.

But this year there is so much money, in so many TV markets, being spent so lavishly, that it numbs the senses, and we still have five months to go.  There are seven states in play: Florida, Ohio, Colorado, Nevada, Virginia, Iowa and New Hampshire.  Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in favor of Super PACs which opened the gateway to virtually unlimited spending on behalf of candidates, non-candidate entities with an interest in the outcome of the election can bombard voters in these states with more political ordnance than has been dropped for half a century—from the time of Lyndon Johnson’s “Daisy” spot to those grim scenes of Hillary Clinton answering that three a.m. call on the red phone back in 2008.

Polls continue to indicate a relatively close race, but with President Obama holding a slight lead overall—depending on which survey one views.  Most analysts’ Electoral College maps also give Obama the edge over Mitt Romney, but neither candidate has secured enough of a lock on the key states to be able to claim a decisive lead going into the 30 day pre-convention stretch.  The result, predictably, is on-the-ground campaigning coupled with extremely heavy advertising—the sort of relentless, round-the-clock efforts one normally sees in late October, not in late July.  (To further complicate the math, a few analysts have even suggested the potential for Electoral deadlock—an unlikely scenario, to be sure—but one remotely possible).

In my article from ten days ago (see The Viral Campaign Celebrates 72 Years), I concluded with a note which questioned the point of such lavish spending.  Do we have more informed voters as a result?  Will the opinions of voters be truly swayed by the heavy advertising, much of it negative?  How much wiser as an electorate will we be when a billion dollars has been spent?

The issue is not new to us, despite the raucous discussion in the mainstream media about the influence of special interest groups and the mega-wealthy on elections—as if these concerns have just now sprouted to life since the outcome of Federal Election Commission versus Citizens United.

But PACs and Super PACs have been around a long time, and they existed in the largely unregulated world of politics prior to 1971 as simply committees designed to exploit loopholes in the vague and often unenforced world of campaign funding.  The Federal Elections Campaign Act of 1972 (FECA) brought these groups out of their backchannels and into the sunshine—barely.  Most of the early PACs were aligned with corporate interests, big labor groups, or trade associations, and throughout the 1970s their influence grew steadily.  In 1976, for example, major PAC contributions already accounted for $22,571,912 in total money given to Congressional campaigns—the lion’s share coming from three principal groups: banks and business; labor organizations; medical and health associations.[1]  That year the American Medical Association reported contributions to federal election campaigns of $1,790,879, and organizations which supported Dairy Farmers and food companies gave $1,362,159.   These dollar amounts seem laughable by today’s standards, but in the mid-70s such giving was already being deplored as potentially ruinous to democratic processes.

Where there were only 140 business and trade association PACs in existence in 1975, by 1982 there were over a thousand.  PACs multiplied in form, complexity, and ideological tilt so rapidly that by the end of 1984 there over 4000, according to the Federal Election Commission.[2]  By the end of the 1980s their penetration and assimilation into the processes of Washington—and their linkage to lobbying efforts—became synonymous with politics.

PACs became a way to contribute mightily—and legally—without the strict limits imposed on individuals and corporations, while at the same time giving candidates the option to accept or reject federal matching funds.  Spending by candidates became so massive by 2008 that it became easier to reject federal dollars and operate outside of the contribution and spending limits, and coupled with PAC money, the millions once used to measure such things quickly escalated to billions.

In his early battles with Hillary Clinton—immediately after Iowa—then-candidate Obama broke the monthly record for incoming cash and spending, and then he proceeded to break that record repeatedly through most of 2008.  McCain was outspent, but he began to gain his stride after the conventions.  According to totals provided by CNN and TNS Media Intelligence, Obama spent $310 million and John McCain spent $135 million between January 2007 and November 2008, for a total of over $445 million—just between those two candidates.[3]  Combined with the money spent in 2008 by Clinton, John Edwards, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Ron Paul and others, it would be more money than was spent by every major party presidential candidate from 1948 to 1980.

Obama spent almost $37 million in Florida alone (none of it spent in the primary where the Democratic Party had banned advertising as punishment for the Sunshine State tinkering with its primary date), with similar totals for Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio—the next biggest of his spending venues that year.

This year the stakes have gone up, and we will soon see that billion dollar mark passed—even more easily when one includes the mountain of money being spent by the PACs.  TV money is money spent efficiently, especially when compared to the cost of airline flights for candidates and staff, and the staging of public events in places like Daytona, Sarasota, Denver, Ft. Collins, Richmond, Columbus and Cleveland.  So, if you live in one of those seven battleground states, get ready for more of the negative ads, and keep that mute button under your thumb.

The question, however, remains the same: are we a better informed electorate after exposure to all this advertising, and are we better off after a billion dollars has been spent?


[1] Congressional Quarterly, April 16, 1977, p. 710

[2] Federal Election Commission Record, March 1985, v. 11, p. 6

[3] CNN/TNS Media Intelligence; the combined total spent by Obama and McCain was $444,936,679.