Editor's Note: Welcome to "The Swing Stater," our new regular column about the 2012 election. What's with the name? Our new correspondent, Nathaniel Briggs, lives and works (at a non-partisan political organization) in the great Swing State of Ohio. If we've learned anything from the past three presidential elections, it's that come November 6, the Electoral College math will most likely come down to just a handful of key contests, with the Buckeye State among the most hotly contested. Between now and Election Day, our Man in Ohio will be reporting on the issues that matter most to the common Bro: from the military to unemployment, Obmaneycare to the Bain Factor. He'll strive to help you make sense of these critical issues and hopefully spark a lively dialogue in the comments and Brommunity. First up: Just what the hell is a Super PAC, and why do Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart have one?
Last Saturday, Herman Cain, international man of romance and a former GOP candidate who dropped out of the Presidential race nearly two months ago, received 6,324 votes in South Carolina’s Republican primary. A good number of the South Carolina electorate is one step above being medically required to wear a helmet, so an occasional accidental vote or principled stand behind a former candidate might make sense, but 6,324 votes for a man who very publicly left the campaign nearly 50 days ago? And this while Rick Perry, a former front runner who dropped out of the race only two days before Saturday’s primary received approximately a third of Cain’s total? How and why did this happen?
Well, you have the dashing Rev. Sir Dr. Stephen T. Colbert, DFA and the somewhat less dashing United States Supreme Court to thank. On January 11, just 10 days before the primary, Colbert announced his interest in considering exploring the potential of maybe possibly running for the Presidency of South Carolina. Yet, there were two significant obstacles standing in his way.
Over the previous year Colbert had established a Super PAC called “Colbert Super PAC,” with the bold stated mission of “Making a better tomorrow, tomorrow.” For those who’ve successfully avoided the political news-sphere for the last two years, according to the Federal Elections Commission, a person cannot lead a Super PAC such as Colbert Super PAC and simultaneously run for public office. Such regulations exist to theoretically prevent candidates from circ*mventing campaign donation limits by way of a Super PAC, which, unlike official candidate committees, can take unlimited donations from donors whose names won’t be publicly released until after the general election.
To address this problem, on January 12, during "The Colbert Report," the host-c*m-candidate transferred control of his Super PAC to close friend, conspirator, and enthusiastic enhancement smoker Jon Stewart. With the scribble of a pen, and possible transference of souls, Colbert was freed from the legal binds of his former position leading the Super PAC, now re-birthed under Stewart as “The Definitely Not Coordinating with Stephen Colbert Super PAC,” and was then legally able to formally launch his exploratory committee to run for “President of South Carolina.” Meanwhile Jon Stewart, with his new Super PAC, which is of course completely and absolutely unaffiliated with Stephen Colbert, could then (and now) spend unlimited funds supporting the candidate of its choice. By pure, utter coincidence, that candidate just happens to be Mr. Colbert. Got all that? This clip might help explain things:
First problem solved. Which leads us to Colbert’s second quandary: Entering the race 10 days before the primary meant Colbert was too late to get his name on the ballot. So what did he do? He places a takeout order to Herman Cain. Colbert suggested on his show and in person last Friday — with Cain in tow and grinning his ass off at a College of Charleston rally — that anyone wishing to support Colbert's candidacy should vote for Herman Cain. The Godfather of Pizza, despite quitting the race long ago was still listed on the ballot, and was happy to briefly bask in the public attention provided by Colbert’s stunt. This weeklong campaign's ads aired in South Carolina by the completely unaffiliated “The definitely Not Coordinating with Stephen Colbert Super PAC” that Colbert had chaired only a week before. The result: 1% of votes cast in a major state's primary for the Presidency of the United States.
A comedian and a Super PAC were able in just one week's time to garner 6,234 votes. And in case you forgot, Colbert and Stewart definitely weren’t coordinating on these ads “in any way.”
While largely a sideshow and with little actual impact on the final results, Colbert’s running gag has brilliantly illustrated the current controversy over how our campaigns are financed. Working in the same manner as Colbert, Newt Gingrich, with the help of $4 million in ads from the completely independent and focus group-named “Winning Our Future” Super PAC, catapulted from the edge of the campaign graveyard just weeks ago to a 12-point victory in South Carolina, with 40% of the vote to Mitt Romney’s 28%. (The Romney-supporting “Restore Our Future” Super PAC, by the way, had $2.16 million in expenditures in the state).
Where did "Winning Our Future" get all that money? It turns out that the Super PAC received a $5 million donation on January 6 from one man, a billionaire casino owner (and Newt's friend), essentially paying for all of “Winning Our Future’s” South Carolina effort and very possibly buying the state’s primary for the former Speaker of the House. Several weeks earlier in Iowa’s caucus, the situation reversed itself both financially and at the polls, with Mitt Romney’s fully unaffiliated Super PAC spending $4.16 million to Gingrich’s $800,000. Though he lost by a handful of votes to Rick Santorum, Romney beat Gingrich in Iowa with 24.5% to Gingrich’s 13.3% of the vote.
Clearly, a trend is emerging in which Super PACs and their spending seem to be at least somewhat reflected in final poll results. This shouldn’t surprise anyone as the actual campaigns of the candidates are being out-spent by a 2-to-1 ratio by the Super PACs. Such a trend, if continued, would seem to indicate that traditional campaigns with publicly disclosed donors capped at $2,500 per person now pale in influence when compared to Super PACs and their unlimited mystery donors.
Ironically, Saturday's primary was also the two-year anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, in Citizens United v. FEC, that corporations such as Wal-Mart and Exxon Mobile, as well as unions such as the SEIU and AFSCME, have in regards to campaign spending the same rights as living, breathing human beings, and that any money spent influencing elections “independently” of a campaign cannot be limited, for it is equivalent to free speech. This controversial ruling, if you’re unfortunate enough to be watching live TV in any of the primary battleground states (including, soon, right here in Ohio), has let loose a torrent of mostly soul-destroying political ads.
As we head towards the general campaign season, these ads will be shoved in our faces — your DVR's fast-forward button will be no match to them, especially if you're a sports fan who likes to watch his games, you know, live. Every time these ads run, as red-blooded American Bros dedicated to the grand experiment of democracy, questions must be asked: Should anonymous outside groups be able to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence our elections? Does cocaine-soaked cash equal free speech? Should corporations and unions have the same constitutional protections as you, the living, breathing, and hopefully f****** Bro reading this article? Do we believe that a huge amount of money spent “independently” and not "in coordination" but still in often vicious support of candidates doesn’t buy influence?
There are countless questions, but one thing is increasingly certain in our current electoral system: Cash Rules Everything Around Me. No matter where you stand politically, Citizens United and its effects are something to seriously consider. Super PACs are spending millions on the GOP primary while Obama supporters stockpile their own mountains of cash waiting for an opponent to be nominated. That's right, this isn't a strictly Republican strategy. The Obama-Biden reelection campaign, which kicks off tonight with the State of the Union address, will surely be using Super PACs to their advantage. In fact, some estimates suggest that the President and his affiliates (coordinated and otherwise) will spend $1 billion this year in its attempt to win four more years.
Each side is hoping to buy something. Whether it's nauseating amounts of air time or our democracy that’s bought, on the surface it looks like the American public loses either way. I don’t know about you, but while I plan to diversify my bonds and not f*** with RZA, GZA, Ghostface, Meth, or even Inspectah Deck, I’m not so sure if I want my country governed by a political system with the same guiding principle as Shaolin’s crack game. But for now when it comes to our elections, it’s as if the Supreme Court is singing, “C.R.E.A.M., get the money, dolla, dolla bill, y’all.” And President Obama, Mitt Romney, or Newt Gingrich might be signing along with them all the way to the White House.
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Got an opinion on Super PACs and Citizens United? Sound Off in the comments, but please be respectful to those whose political beliefs you may disagree with. After all, you never know whose mind you might be able with a thoughtful, nuanced opinion.