The Dark Matter of Politics
Seventy years ago, scientists discovered matter that was hard to see, but made up most of the universe. They coined this mystery “dark matter,” a fitting term for such a powerful force, yet invisible to most people. Similar to dark matter, super PACs go unnoticed by most people while they perform a mammoth task: using financial means to portray their candidates in a good light and denigrate the opponents. In an increasingly complex world, raising money at the grassroots level and holding intimate town hall meetings is no longer enough. Candidates must also be vigilant of the media, which can make or break them no matter how qualified they may be.
As a result of the infamous Supreme Court case Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission (2010), corporations, billionaires, and other mega wealthy groups can funnel unlimited sums of cash into Super PACs, or political action committees. Super PACs often raise tens of millions of dollars and use them to create TV ads supporting the candidate of their choice. Historically, ads have been known to devastate opponents. In the 1988 election, George H.W Bush’s PACs created the “Willie Horton Ad” against his opponent Michael Dukakis, portraying him as a heartless politician who was fine with releasing murderers into the public. Combined with his numerous gaffes and inability to counter Bush’s PAC’s attack ads, Dukakis was crushed in the general election. Nowadays, airtime has become essential to a candidate’s run since Super PACs can overwhelm candidates with attack ads. Specifically, the Sunlight Foundation discovered 76% of all Super PAC ads in the 2012 election were negative. The importance of Super PACs to a candidate’s success was highlighted in Newt Gingrich’s run against Mitt Romney in the 2012 Republican Primaries. Romney’s Super PACs aired over 13,000 ads while Gingrich fielded only 300. Romney ended up winning 74% of all delegates in the 2012 Republican Primaries, while Gingrich won only 6.5%. Even though strong Super PAC support does not guarantee a candidate’s success, election results show a strong correlation between political support and well-funded Super PACs.
Many correctly believe candidates need strong finances in order to succeed, but Super PAC money is not always effective. Super PAC leaders cannot coordinate with the candidates nor help pay campaign costs, like staff payments or traveling costs. This flaw was directly exposed in Scott Walker and Rick Perry’s exit from the 2016 race. Lack of campaign funds played a large role in their exits, yet their Super PACs still raised $20 million and $17 million respectively. It is also important to note both men were accomplished conservative governors; specifically, Scott Walker conquered Wisconsin’s labor unions while Rick Perry led Texas to become the best state for business. Despite their records, their lackluster debate performances and voters’ preferences toward outsider candidates made megadonors’ support meaningless.
Just as importantly, a massive war chest does not always mean a Super PAC will be effective. The Sunlight Foundation analyzed Super PAC spending in the 2012 election, and calculated their returns on investment. They discovered there was no clear link between the amount of money Super PACS raised and how effective they were. For example, the main Republican PAC, American Crossroads, spent over $103 million to support Romney’s general election prospects. Over $95 million of that sum was used for negative ads against Democratic candidates, specifically those running for the House, Senate, and the president himself. Every single Democratic candidate they spent over $1 million opposing won, and most of the PAC’s money was figuratively thrown away, as it used $85 million to oppose Obama. Ironically, he would achieve a landslide victory against Romney in the electoral college, indicating American Crossroad’s barrage of attack ads did little to dissuade the public from voting for Obama. On the contrary, a Democratic, liberal group named Planned Parenthood Action Fund Inc. raised only $6.9 million but had a 98.11% return on investment. Not only did their financial support of Obama’s re-election bid succeed, but also most of the House and Senate Republican candidates they opposed did not get into office.
Despite the influence super PACs can wield during election cycles, overall voters’ sentiments toward conservatism or liberalism plays a major role in deciding how effective the PACs will be. In April 2015, the Pew Research Center discovered that there are more potential Democratic voters in the United States than Republican voters, and hence the country is leaning left. The Republicans have a 9% advantage in the white male vote and a 48 - 49% surplus in the Mormon and Protestant votes, but the Democrats hold a 16% lead with women, 22% lead with those with postgraduate degrees, 16% lead with Millennials, and up to 30% leads with minorities, such as African, Asian, and Hispanic Americans. It is projected that the white population is set to decrease from 63.03% in 2010 to 60.9% in 2017, while the percentage of minorities increase across the board. To further worsen the Republicans’ electoral problem, the Silent Generation, or people born from the 1920s to 1940s, will be dying out, meaning the Republicans will lose a large chunk of conservative voters. Just as importantly, CNN reported that the percentage of Christians in the US has dropped from 78.4% in 2007 to 70.2% in 2015, with further downtrends expected in the future. This means there will be less Christian votes, which tend to lean Republican. In summary, the changing demographic and hence political landscape is a large buffer or support against super PACs’ intentions, depending on whether or not they lean Democrat or Republican.
- Daniel Hyun