Ex-Obama staffer in Iowa City: Super PACs significantly contribute to election


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A former member of Barack Obama’s campaign team said increased fundraising efforts differentiate this year’s presidential election from the one in 2008. But one University of Iowa expert said increased online campaign efforts may counteract the actions of most Super PACs.

Heather Gerken, a former member of then-Sen. Obama’s presidential campaign team in 2008, on Thursday gave the presentation “Presidential politics: Why 2012 Looks So Different from 2008 and What It Means for the Future of the American Election System.”

She said the amount of money spent on this year’s election will exceed that of any previous election.

Unlike the 2008 election, the GOP is expected to outspend Obama’s campaign.

But GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s campaign may not provide the largest financial contributions in opposition to Obama. While Super PACs and nonprofits don’t directly donate to Romney’s campaign, Gerken said, they aim to help elect him president.

“We don’t have a track record of these organizations,” she said.

Gerken, the current J. Skelly Wright Professor of Law at Yale, zeroed in on the roles of Super PACs and nonprofits and discussed voter rights, election laws, and the money behind the campaigns.

“I don’t think it’s normal,” she said. “They’re a brand-new player.”

With Super PACs and nonprofit 501 C4s supplying vast amounts of money anonymously to support candidates independently of the campaigns themselves, officials worry about the effects.

“It would be better if the money came from voters,” Gerken said.

The massive amounts of money spent on campaigns are a part of a new era, said Caroline Tolbert, a UI professor of political science.

Potentially, this era benefits Republican candidates mainly because of their corporate donors, Tolbert said, but both parties ultimately benefit from Super PACs and 501 C4s.

Gerken said it is estimated $500 million has been contributed to the Republican effort without being directly given to a campaign, but because 501 C4s and Super PACs are not subjected to the same rules, the public may never know how much exactly is contributed and by whom.

While these large campaign funds are typically considered an advantage in the political world, Tolbert said the money might not be as useful as in previous years.

“It might turn out the real leverage in getting voters mobilized to turn out and vote isn’t going to be these expensive television ads but will instead be what your friends on a social network or followers are saying,” Tolbert said.

In 2008, Obama’s online presence gave him a definitive edge over former presidential nominee John McCain, and Tolbert believes that could be another key factor in this election.

“Online campaigning could balance the influx of money people are shoving into campaign ads,” she said.

In fact, the Obama campaign launched an online initiative in Iowa City on Thursday, aimed at getting youth to engage in volunteering and re-electing the president.

“We’re going to be very present on the campus, and we’re looking forward to working with [the students],” said Liz Purchia of the Obama for America campaign.

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