Campaign reform necessary


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With the 2012 election finally over, the previous balance of power maintained, and the airwaves mercifully peaceful for the first time in recent memory, it is all too tempting to discount the negative effects of current campaign-finance laws on the American political system.

The super PAC — a special type of political-action committee that must remain nominally independent of candidates and is free from donation limits for individuals, unions, and corporations — has been on the scene since a pair of 2010 Supreme Court decisions ruled that limitations on independent political expenditures and donations are unconstitutional, and that’s bad news.   

Yes, 2012’s biggest individual super PAC donor, casino magnate, and erstwhile Newt Gingrich sugar daddy Sheldon Adelson, gave tens of millions of dollars in support of eight candidates — including Mitt Romney, Virginia Senate candidate George Allen, and Florida Tea Party Congressman Allen West — and none of them won on Tuesday.

Yes, 2012’s two largest candidate-independent spenders were the pro-Romney super PACs Restore Our Future and American Crossroads, which together spent more than $230 million, primarily on attack ads that ultimately did not win the presidency for Romney.

In light of the apparent impotence of the super PACs, it’s easy to say that even money cannot overcome changing demographics and a well-organized ground game. Such an argument understates the corrosive effects of unaccountable outside spending on the American political system, particularly on candidate nomination. Campaign-finance reform that turns back the tide of super PACs is more important than ever; we should not lose sight of that in the wake of the 2012 election.

While super-PAC money — which overwhelmingly favored Republicans — may have proven ineffective in the general election, the true danger of massive campaign-independent election spending comes earlier, during the nominating process.

As Todd Donovan and Shaun Bowler write in their book Reforming the Republic, the wealth primary — the fundraising battle in the year prior to primary season — largely determines who will be the major-party candidates for president. By the time the first voters head for the Iowa caucuses, the list of viable candidates has already been whittled down by the media and the party establishment based on the ability of a candidate to raise funds by appealing to donors large and small.

The world of unlimited campaign contributions complicates the so-called wealth primary. Suddenly, because contributions to super PACs are unlimited and potentially anonymous, serious presidential campaigns can get off the ground with next to no popular support.

This gives wealthy individuals and corporations remarkable influence in choosing candidates. Last year, Gingrich’s run at the Republican nomination was kept afloat down the stretch by the more than $20 million Adelson and his family pumped into a pro-Gingrich super PAC called Winning Our Future.

Super-donor Foster Friess personally contributed about $2.2 million to the Rick Santorum campaign through a super PAC called the Red, White, and Blue Fund.

The super PACs, this time, were ineffective in swaying voter choice on Election Day but wielded tremendous power in determining who wound up on the ballot in the first place. Today, wealthy individuals can almost singlehandedly advance a candidate through the “wealth primary” with virtually no public vetting. This is a very dangerous trend; only well-crafted, dramatic campaign-finance reform can reverse it.

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