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How super PACs are changing the GOP presidential race

The $41 million that 'super PACs' have spent so far leaves 2008 in the dust and is changing campaign dynamics. Notable effects: many more negative ads and an ability to keep faltering campaigns alive.

By Staff writer / February 6, 2012

GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich spoke outside a restaurant in Coral Springs, Fla., on Jan. 25. A $10 million donation from a supporter around the time of the South Carolina primary helped keep him in the race – and spending.

Matt Rourke/AP



Newt Gingrich remains a viable candidate in the Republican presidential race today in large part because of a $10 million donation – half arriving just before and half just after the South Carolina primary – from a Las Vegas casino billionaire and his wife.

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Two years ago, that money bomb would have been illegal. Now, it's a prominent feature of Campaign 2012, in which unlimited sums of money donated to "super political-action committees" – not directly to a candidate's own campaign – can, in an instant, reset the odds for a race.

So far, these outside groups – super PACs, for short – have collectively spent $40.9 million to influence 2012 presidential and congressional races. That's twice what had been spent by outside groups at the same point in the 2008 campaign cycle, when both parties had competitive presidential nominating races, according to the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington.

They are also having an impact on the tone and scope of political ads. Candidate-sponsored ads, which accounted for 97 percent of advertising in the 2008 GOP presidential primary, dropped to 56 percent of the total in the 2012 primaries through Jan. 25, according to the Wesleyan Media Project, analyzing data by Kantar Media. Moreover, the super PAC ads are overwhelmingly negative. 

 So what, you ask? The US Supreme Court, after all, ruled in 2010 that such unlimited spending on campaigns is a way for people and corporations to exercise their free-speech rights. What difference has this infusion of political cash via super PACs made, really, to Election 2012?

That jury is still out on the long-term impacts, but political analysts see the super PACs changing the nature of the presidential campaign. They've helped produce an unusually bitter and volatile GOP primary season, turning the airwaves in early-voting states toxic with negative ads. They've also extended the campaigns of candidates who otherwise might not have lasted, they say. Some candidates have even complained that the unlimited spending by outside groups is eclipsing the messages of their own campaigns (though critics say those are crocodile tears, given a super PAC's ability to convey a scorching message that a candidate is happy to have someone else deliver).

Take those checks from Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, which went to Winning Our Future, a newly minted super PAC staffed by former Gingrich aides but by law not affiliated with the Gingrich campaign. The super PAC used the extra millions to buy broadcast time for a 28-minute smear ad on rival Mitt Romney's record creating jobs, the linchpin of his campaign. "Nothing mattered but greed," the ad's narrator said. "The suffering began when Mitt Romney came to town."


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