APME-ASNE recap: The role of PACs in campaign finance

By Jacob Nierenberg

A Stanford University student attended the annual APME-ASNE conference last weekend and reported on a panel discussion on the influence that money has in national politics.

Editor’s note: Reprinted with permission from https://editors3d15.wordpress.com, a site developed by students at Ball State, San Jose State and Stanford universities. Visit their page for more coverage from the annual APME-ASNE conference.

Want a refresher on political campaign terms? Review and download our guide, “Following the Money in 2016.”


A panel of five Associated Press journalists discussed the murky role that money plays in national politics and the influence it has in determining the winner of an election at the APME-ASNE conference last Sunday.

“We’ve seen for a couple of elections now the rise of bigger money, and that’s certainly going to be a major story to tell throughout 2016,” said Julie Bykowicz, national political reporter for The Associated Press.

If Bykowicz and the rest of the panel are right, then the 2016 presidential race may strengthen the trends of previous years with respect to campaign finance, despite the strategies of candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

The recent history of campaign finances has been largely shaped by two U.S. Supreme Court cases involving the Federal Election Commission (FEC). McConnell v. FEC, in 2003, upheld the constitutionality of the previous year’s McCain-Feingold Act, which sought to limit the influence of “soft money” — money contributed by corporations, political action committees (PACs) or other individuals — in elections. Seven years later, in Citizens United v. FEC, the court ruled that campaign contributions were akin to free speech, and as such were protected by the First Amendment.

What this means is that while super PACs cannot directly aid a candidate, they can do the next best thing — influence the voters.

The Citizens United decision gave rise to a new breed of PAC — the super PAC. The Sunlight Foundation, an organization that tracks the role of money in politics, outlines two rules that PACs must abide by: They can only donate $5,000 per candidate per election, and they cannot accept money from corporations or labor unions. Super PACs are exempt from these rules, but they cannot contribute directly to or coordinate with a campaign. They are, however, allowed to finance the single-issue advertisements that become ubiquitous in the weeks before Election Day.

What this means is that while super PACs cannot directly aid a candidate, they can do the next best thing — influence the voters. And the only limit to how much they can spend, is how much they can raise.

Graphic by Jeremy Cummings, San Jose State.

Money at the state level

In addition to presidential elections, money plays an integral role in the election — or re-election — of state legislators and governors, said Tom Verdin, national editor for The Associated Press.

“Just as we’re seeing at the national level, the amount of money that is just raining from the sky is growing exponentially at the state level as well,” Verdin said.

This can lead to problems when states undergo redistricting. Every 10 years, with the U.S. Census, states redraw their electoral district boundaries; each of these districts has a representative in the House of Representatives. The state legislature is responsible for this process, which means that they can redraw the districts in such a way that benefits their own party by gerrymandering, Verdin said.

“In recent cycles, the Republicans have done a much better job playing this game than the Democrats,” Verdin said. He added that, despite the Democratic candidates getting 1.4 million more votes than Republican candidates in the 2012 House election, the Republican party maintained its majority.

Will 2016 be a tipping point?

The 2016 presidential race already has seen electioneering by outside organizations; the Koch brothers have set aside $900 million to spend in favor of Republican candidates, and the Clinton Foundation continues to divide critics as to whether its activities are more charitable or political in nature. When it comes to the campaigns of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, the two candidates — who otherwise share very little in common — stress one tenet: They will not let contributions affect their political positions.

At the first Republican debate on Aug. 6, Trump said that “our [political] system is broken,” and added that he had given “a lot of money” to candidates of both parties — many of whom he was sharing a stage with. When he first declared his candidacy in June, he said he was “using his own money,” and did not need money from lobbyists or donors. He has continued to refuse money from lobbyists, but he has accepted individual contributions. Individual contributions comprise about $3.8 million — or 67 percent — of Trump’s total campaign funds, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), which has been tracking financial data of federal candidates since 1987. Trump has contributed $1.9 million to his own campaign thus far, which accounts for the remaining 33 percent.

Bykowicz said the public is aware of the role of money in politics, and it wonders what can be done about it.

Meanwhile, Sanders cites individual donors and supporters as his primary source of campaign funds. Sanders has collected nearly $40 million in individual contributions, comprising an impressive 96 percent of his campaign funds, according to the CRP. Of those donations, over $30 million were classified as “small” by the FEC, meaning that they were less than $200. Sanders claims that he will only use his supporters’ money, and he appears to be delivering on that promise, out-raising Trump several times over.

In an earlier interview, David Scott, U.S. political editor for The Associated Press, said that Sanders’ refusal to utilize super PACs means that the only financial support he will get is the money that his own campaign raises, putting him at a disadvantage against his fellow Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton.

“Hillary Clinton will have, alongside her, a super PAC — Priorities USA Action — that will be supporting her, and raising money … without having to worry about contribution limits,” Scott said. “That’s a huge advantage for her in her race against Sanders in that there’s a separate organization that people can give to, and they’re not limited in how much they can give to.”

Bykowicz said the public is aware of the role of money in politics, and it wonders what can be done about it.

“Americans really are interested in this topic, and see it as a problem,” Bykowicz said. “They don’t necessarily have a solution, but they see that money has an outsized role in politics, and want to see who is spending money in politics.”


Jacob Nierenberg

Jacob is an American studies major and prospective communication minor at Stanford University. On campus, he is a staff writer for the Stanford Daily as well as MINTMagazine. He spent his summer in Seattle working as an editorial intern for Crosscut Public Media, writing about subjects such as the EMP Museum and the Cascadia earthquake.

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ethics, insights