Among the novel events and frequently discussed features of the 2012 presidential election, none is more obvious or, perhaps, more relevant to the state of the U.S. democracy than the ubiquity of money. Money has long played a role in presidential campaigns, but scholars frequently disagree over its effects. Political observers also hold a range of perspectives on the normative value of campaign expenditures between believing that money is a form of expression, and thus should be welcomed and protected in campaigns, to believing that money corrupts campaigns and representatives by favoring the wealthy at the expense of those with less.
Related debates about money's effects on campaigns and political representation in the United States continued throughout 2012 following major reconfigurations in its campaign finance laws. These changes made it possible for citizens to spend unlimited sums of money on campaigns through independent expenditure-only committees, better known as Super Political Action Committees (Super PACs), and made the 2012 presidential campaign the first to experience unlimited outside spending via Super PACs. The emergence of Super PACs within the 2012 presidential campaign thus prompts a reexploration of our understanding of the key factors of campaign dynamics and fundamental concerns about the role of money in campaigns.
We analyze the role of Super PACs in the campaign for the 2012 Republican Presidential nomination. Super PACs contributed throughout the campaign, but their presence was particularly pointed during the nomination contest, where the demands for money are high but candidates are constrained in their ability to raise funds. Indeed, Super PACs repeatedly outspent Republican candidates and dominated the broadcast airwaves with their advertisements. Yet, as newcomers to the campaign, questions abound of what Super PACs actually do. Are they active in the invisible primary, perhaps playing an important role in winnowing down the field before voters get a chance to weigh in? Do they disproportionately serve the interests of front-runners? Or, do they keep afloat less organized challengers who otherwise would not be able to compete? We respond to these questions with a comprehensive description of Super PAC spending over time and across space, with careful attention to the direction of the outside groups' messages, for or against candidates.
In addition to questions of how Super PACs affected the behavior of candidates in the 2012 nomination contest, we also evaluate the legal and arguably more pertinent question, "Are they 'independent?'" A frequent criticism of Super PACs is that their independence from the campaigns is a ruse, as one might expect given that former campaign staff and trusted candidate advisors often work for Super PACs (see, e.g., Confessore 2011). To that end, we focus our efforts on testing whether Super PACs appear to be coordinating their expenditure behavior with candidates and how. We outline and test for two possible forms of coordination. First, campaigns and Super PACs might coordinate their expenditures to complement each other by spending in the same places at the same time, bombarding the airwaves with consistent messages. Alternatively, they might prefer a strategy of substitution whereby PACs and campaigns focus on different locales in which they might be more successful. We test for these two possible forms of coordination by performing a longitudinal analysis that tests the dynamic relationship between candidates and Super PAC spending.
In what follows we begin by presenting an overview of the new campaign finance landscape since Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC) (2010) and discussing the possible implications of the entrance of Super PACs within the party nomination process. We divide the remainder of the article into answering the two sets of aforementioned questions pertaining to the behavior and nature of Super PACs, respectively. We conclude with a discussion of how Super PACs and campaigns react to one another, their apparent independence, and what these findings mean for the future of presidential nomination contests.
Nominations and the New Campaign Expenditure Environment
Although scholars differ in their assessments of how determinative it is, there is little doubt that money is a primary feature of presidential nomination campaigns and has some influence in determining nominations. The high costs of campaigns, well-connected and independently wealthy candidates' tendencies to reject public financing, and the continued front-loading of state contests all raise the prominence of money within nomination campaigns (Butler 2004; Cohen et al. 2008; Green 2006; Steger 2000). At the earliest stages, candidates are dedicated to garnering enough money necessary to fund a costly national campaign organization (Smidt and Christenson 2012). Candidates across the pack frequently bow out before the first contests as a result of their inability to raise funds and compete in an increasingly costly contest (Goff 2004; Norrander 2006). Furthermore, candidates who have a lot of money on hand are more likely to win (Adkins and Dowdle 2001; Steger 2000; Steger, Dowdle, and Adkins 2004).
The importance of money was anticipated well in advance of the 2012 Republican primary. Much as it was in 2008 (see Aldrich 2009), a compressed schedule was believed to shorten the financial momentum from early victories and restrict candidates' abilities to raise funds during the contest period. (1) In an attempt to prolong the contest and give long-shot candidates a better opportunity to compete with early front-runners, the Republican National Committee adopted new rules in 2010 for both the allocation of delegates and the timing of the following primaries and caucuses. The new rules, however, did not prevent Florida and other states from moving their contests up (only being penalized by a loss of half of their delegates), thereby pushing the traditional early states forward as well. Consequently, the 2012 calendar exemplified a continuing trend toward a compressed, front-loaded and nationalized schedule (Mayer and Busch 2003), which has translated into nomination campaigns being very expensive and time consuming. Candidates need to raise substantial funds early and organize their campaigns in several states simultaneously.
Furthermore, long-shot candidates with little financial support can no longer find solace in public financing, which is now effectively obsolete. Candidates accepting public matching funds would have needed to restrict their primary spending levels to a fraction of what the front-runners raise from private donors. In all, the modern nomination campaign offers little in the way of support for long shots but plenty of additional hurdles (Steger 2000). The end result, at least according to recent scholarship, appears to be that a candidate's chances are largely determined before the race gets under way. The level of campaign cash reserves, national popularity, and national party support at the beginning of the primary season are the primary factors determining nomination success (Adkins and Dowdle 2001, 2005; Cohen et al. 2008; Mayer 1996, 2003; Steger 2007; Steger, Dowdle, and Adkins 2004). (2)
Major changes in the campaign expenditure environment of the 2012 presidential nomination process provided a new twist to this trend. In 2010, the Supreme Court overturned aspects of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 with its decision in Citizens United v. FEC (2010). Specifically, it made it legal for corporations and unions to spend their money on campaigns, so long as the groups did so independently of the candidates. Subsequently, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled in Speechnow.org v. FEC (2010) that limiting the contributions to independent PACs would be akin to a violation of free speech rights, and thus they should be allowed to raise unlimited sums of money for the purpose of spending it on political expression. Together the decisions created an environment for the birth of Super PACs. There are no restrictions on how much money these independent expenditure groups can raise from individuals, corporations, and unions or spend on campaigns, so long as the PACs remain independent from a party or candidate and their campaigns. The popular media have made and continue to make various claims about the nature and impact of Super PACs on campaigns, but there is little empirical evidence yet to suggest that these groups have a deleterious effect on the state of our democracy or otherwise. Indeed, within campaigns for a party's presidential nomination, it is unclear if they provide greater advantages to front-runners or long shots. Because the demands of the nomination campaign make money an essential component to candidate success, the lack of contribution and spending limits on Super PAC activity makes them a valuable ally to a candidate's campaign organization that could potentially change how nomination campaigns are won. But they also have important restrictions on their behavior. These organizations have greater freedoms to raise large amounts of money and spend it in support and opposition of candidates, but their freedom to spend is only possible if their expenditures are independent and not coordinated.' Moreover, their expenditures can only fund acts of communication such as television advertisements or direct voter contacts.
There is good reason to think that campaigns would generally appreciate likeminded Super PACs. In addition to any persuasive effects, Super PACs may be helpful to campaigns insofar as they allow them to concentrate their resources elsewhere. There is even some superficial evidence suggesting Super PACs are best suited to purchase costly forms of mass communication. Super PACs spent more than the presidential primary candidates on television advertisements during...