When $uper PACs and Grassroots Collide


2008 was the year of the Grassroots. The  Obama Campaign played a strong focus to the people; young people in particular were empowered by the Internet to participate in a historical election. Four years later, we’ve experienced a surge in technology use and expect a concurring surge in online political activity. With this, we also might expect that the collective voice of the 99 percent will sound louder than it ever has before, but as a college student of modest finances and non-existent political clout, I can only hear little but a whimper.

While most of America’s attention is focused on the carnival show that is the Republican Primary election (with political ads ranging of Rombo and Mutt Romney, most of the things Rick Santorum does) and Presidential candidates personal lives; the mainstream media, meanwhile, remains largely undistracted by the sideshow. A New York Times article published on the front page Wednesday discussed the emergence of “a new breed of super donor” enabled by a recent Supreme Court decision (Read about Supreme Court/Citizen’s United Decision here) that now allows unlimited fund-raising by federal political committees. The most significant result of the Court’s decision is, arguably, the now unlimited power of Super PACs to influence campaigns.
Although the motivation behind massive contributions isn’t 100% clear, most Superdonors are often economic conservatives who are strongly determined to have a Republican candidate in office. Harold C. Simmons, a Texas businessman, is a prime example of the ‘Superdonor’. He’s contributed to Santorum, Gingrich, and Romney’s campaigns for a combined total of over $14 million.
Come the end of this loony primary race, the winner will be primarily concerned about beating the Obama campaign and winning the Presidency. Even though the Obama campaign proved fearsome in 2008, with grassroots focused organizing and fundraising, the introduction of the Super PAC this year puts the Obama campaign into a somewhat more precarious position. A large part of Obama’s success in 2008 is attributed to mobilizing the vote and get large numbers of small donations. This in fact is a point of pride for the Obama campaign to this day, who are not afraid to flaunt that over 50% of all their funding comes from contributions under $200, and that 80% of their funding rings in under $2,500. Even though the Obama campaign has always been a huge advocate of campaign financing transparency, coming under pressure, they have recently been forced to re-evaluate their strategy, after Priorities USA, the Super PAC supporting the Obama campaign raised a meager $59,000 compared to the $36.8 million raised by Romney.

Sure, campaign financing doesn’t completely dictate what a candidate would do if elected, but it may be a significant statement about whom a certain Presidential candidate’s policies may benefit. Even if Romney does run out of steam, the idea of the Super PAC seems antithetical to the spirit of democracy.

Its time for both the Obama Campaign, and New Media optimists alike (if they happen to be Democrats) to put their money where their collective mouths are. In the age of Super-PACs it seems as if David hardly stands a chance against Goliath; even when thousands of enthusiastic political participants make smaller contributions all it takes is one massive donation from a billionaire to match it. My prediction is that when the election is finally over, we’ll have much less to say about both citizen participation and Online participation than we did in 2008.

Coming from the viewpoint of someone who contributed $15 to the Obama campaign in 2008 as a high-schooler, and who now is a college student that could barely afford to contribute much more, this super PAC business gets me to feeling quite pessimistic about the true power of the Internet to ‘empower individuals’ against longstanding power structures. And, given that a major component of Obama’s support came from the college-age contingent, thats not a good sign. Just as I see the ‘99 percent’ of Occupy New Haven being asked to leave the New Haven Green, I see a mirror image of the nation’s ‘99 percent’ being told that their contributions are too trifling to matter. Obama’s acquiescence to the super PAC tells me “Your contributions were good enough then, but now you’re out of your league.”

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One Response to When $uper PACs and Grassroots Collide

  1. Anna says:

    Interesting point, Colby. As David has pointed out, social media is acting as an important and effective counterweight to PACs. Millions have learned about PACs through Twitter and other venues. Of course, it remains to be seen whether this will actually lead to legal reform.
    Also, Romney may actually be winning the social media race, so it may be a stretch to assume that current fundraising trends have operated in a different direction than social media users.

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