COLUMN: Super PACs waning influence in 2016
Amid raucous blustering on immigration and healthcare, two issues stand to dominate the 2016 general election: campaign finance and the future of Citizens United.
If you don't know what Citizens United is, don't worry, you're in the majority of registered voters. Basically, it all has to do with how candidates can raise money. In 2010, many long-held campaign finance laws were superseded by the Supreme Court of the United States. The ruling allowed candidates and their proxies to create political action committees, or PACs, to help raise unlimited sums of money.
What is Citizens United?
Citizens United was a case heard by the Supreme Court of the United States in 2010. The plaintiff, a political action committee known as Citizens United, argued that inanimate corporations should be treated as individuals, and thus deserve the same right to political speech as Joe Schmoe serving your morning coffee. The court ruled in favor of the group, setting off a wave of wild west style campaign finance changes that have allowed big money donations to presidential candidates without regulation. Even worse, some say, the donations are untraceable without limit.
Donations are often untraceable and offered in huge, unregulated amounts. That's the difference from individual donations you or I make to candidates of our choosing. To many politicians, including Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and some candidates on the right, the ruling is an abomination, allowing a partisan, billionaire class to buy and sell elections.
That may be an exaggeration slanted by the left – many of whom have benefited greatly from PACs – but a lot of Americans agree with the sentiment. A Bloomberg poll published late last year resolved that 78 percent of its respondents felt Citizens United should be overturned. The target on Citizens United's back has never been bigger, and could see its final days after its malevolence is hammered into our brains in 2016.
Even without major campaign finance reform or another Democrat in the White House, this year might be the death knell of the Super PAC.
To be very clear, Citizens United is as bloated and excessive as it sounds, but was a necessity for almost all candidates to compete in the elections of the future. That changed this year when three major things happened: Sanders, Donald Trump and Jeb Bush all ran for president.
Hear me out. The first example is easy. Sanders is running a campaign almost exclusively centered on the moral and criminal lapses of Wall Street and their unfettered ability to do what they want with America's money – his words, not mine. Aside from breaking up big banks and holding them legally responsible for the 2008 economic collapse, Sanders is hell bent on stopping Citizens United.
By virtue of repetition, Sanders has helped drum up some of the discontent against Super PACs, and could be chiefly responsible if the ruling gets overturned during a Sanders presidency. Yet Sanders' ideological fist isn't opposed to taking Super PAC money -- two Super PACs in his name have donated a total of $8,795, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Still, that's a drop in the pail, he's hardly needed them. Sanders has raised nearly $42 million in private donations alone, and will most likely continue down that path. Take that into account with Trump's generally self-funded campaign, and it becomes clear that Super PAC money is not only unnecessary, it's insolvent.
Two outsiders kicking the political elite to the curb isn't unheard of, but it is unexpected, especially when Bush and Hillary Clinton are viewed as underdogs. Clinton's various Super PACs have raised $16.2 million, while Bush is sitting in a far favorable funding position.
Bush's "Right To Rise" PAC raised a whopping $103 million for the floundering candidate, and still, with all that money, he continues to drop in national polls. Obviously Bush was saddled with disadvantages, including the stain on his family name. Yet his demise says less about his own failings than it does about PACs. Even with such a strong fundraising arm, money alone will not seal the deal, proving again the insolvency of Citizens United.
Recently, a Bush PAC aimed at Latino voters titled "Vamos For Jeb" shut down, citing its inability to raise even a single dollar. Between the left's total war on PACs and their new inefficacy, more politicians could be less seduced by the allowances of Citizens United.
Once it is no longer an ingrained in our campaign finance system, it's death is sure to shortly follow. Removing Supreme Court ordered precedent is a nearly improbable bet in Washington, but it's not impossible.
All it takes is the right lawsuit, under the right circumstances, backed by an administration that wants Citizens United's head mounted on its wall, to undo what many consider the greatest threat to democracy in our time.