Eight reasons to hit 'mute' during TV ads by super PACs

First Iowa, now South Carolina, have seen the first wave of political TV ads from super PACs – mostly negative – that will smother the 2012 elections. Voters have an easy way to avoid such ads.

AP Photo/Comedy Central, Kristopher Long
Stephen Colbert, center, and Jon Stewart, right, hold hands during The Colbert Report, as former federal election official Trevor Potter looks on. During the Jan. 12 episode, Colbert legally transferred his super political action committee to Stewart, his friend and Comedy Central cohort.

Voters in South Carolina, like those in Iowa and New Hampshire, have been the first to experience a coming deluge of TV advertising nationwide from so-called super PACs in the 2012 election.

On South Carolina TV stations this week before Saturday’s primary, as many as 13 political ads are being run during any 30-minute span, with nearly half paid for by such groups.

By November, total spending by the special-interest political-action committees could exceed $1 billion, by some estimates, all with the aim to sway voters for or against candidates – most likely against.

TV viewers do have a choice of whether to listen to them. It’s called the mute button. (The function was first designed in 1950 by Zenith when the owner of the TV maker become fed up with commercials.) Here are eight reasons to use it:

1. You are not alone if you dislike super PACs.

Two-thirds of Americans who are aware of the groups’ emergence in politics say they will have a negative impact on elections, according to a Pew Research Center poll. Super PACs can spend unlimited amounts on behalf of a candidate.

Almost half of voters, however, have not heard of their existence. Super PACs sprang up after a 2010 Supreme Court ruling (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission) that said institutions from corporations to unions have similar free-speech rights as people in campaigns – if super PACs are run independently of campaigns (a big if).

2. Many candidates themselves say they don’t like super PACs.

Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum deplore them, even as they rely on them. Mitt Romney wants them to “disappear,” despite one that helped him win in Iowa. President Obama launched his first ad of the 2012 campaign – in response to a super PAC ad. Jon Huntsman Jr. gave up his candidacy, saying “This race has degenerated into an onslaught of negative and personal attacks not worthy of our people.”

3. Wealthy contributors to super PACs will likely ask for special favors from a winning candidate.

Presidents have a hard time saying no to those who spent millions to help them win. Big donors get easier access to the White House to pitch their interests than little donors. Money buys influence.

4. The most advanced market research techniques are being used by super PACs to target voters and create emotional TV ads.

Manipulation of voters isn’t new, but the science of it is now so well crafted that even vital data about each voter is dug up – often personal information on the Internet.

5. Super PAC ads may not work.

In 2004, Democrats spent more than Republicans in the George Bush-John Kerry contest but Mr. Bush won. Why listen to an ad that may have no effect on the election?

6. Super PACs can more easily go negative than a candidate’s own TV ads.

Allowing more negative ads would only discourage even more people from running for elected office. The quality of candidates may only decline. Comedian Stephen Colbert even tried to pull a prank by claiming he is running for “president of the United States of South Carolina” – with the help of a super PAC.

7. Reforms are afoot to curb or eliminate super PACs.

The most commonly talked about reform is a constitutional amendment, but that’s a long shot. In Massachusetts, Republican incumbent Sen. Scott Brown and his likely challenger, Democrat Elizabeth Warren, are in talks to somehow persuade super PACs not to participate in their closely watched race. It’s unclear how such a cease-fire could be enforced.

8. Can you rely on TV stations to fact-check political ads bysuper PACs?

Probably not. Falsehoods or half-truths have been found in many such ads. Mr. Gingrich had to repudiate an anti-Romney documentary done by a super PAC because of its errors.

For now, a grass-roots boycott of super PAC ads may be the best answer.

Just reach for the remote.

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