In last night’s Republican debate, tensions were running high between the two front-runners, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, as Romney adopted a more pugnacious style. Romney shifted his focus away from Obama and went after Gingrich with guns ablazin’, calling him an “influence peddler” and a “disgrace.”
Romney and Gingrich have been trading jabs, in the debates and in television ads through the first three primary states, since the campaign for the 2012 Republican nomination began. Some might credit Gingrich’s truculent demeanor with inspiring this combative atmosphere. But according to New York Magazine’s Joe Hagan, the flood of negativity won’t end with the GOP nomination. And the culprit is simple: it’s money. Donations are pouring into the coffers of superPACs, which Hagan describes as “mini-campaigns” with the goal of “going negative against the opposition.”
Americans claim that they dislike bloody politics: half of respondents in a recent Pew survey said the campaign has been too negative. And after the 2010 election, nearly half of Americans said that the lack of civil and respectful discourse in our political system was a very serious problem.
Those who oppose this new influx of cash into the political scene have the Supreme Court to thank. Nearly two years to the day after the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United vs. FEC, where the Court ruled that corporations and unions have the freedom, under the First Amendment, to spend money on political candidates’ campaigns without limits or oversight, many Americans are protesting the superPACs that have already spent a total of $20 million in this year’s Republican primary. SuperPACs can collect unlimited contributions to promote particular candidates or more often tear down their opponents, but cannot directly coordinate efforts with the campaign. However, the relationship between superPACs and their candidates is often murky, since the people running the superPACs are, according to NPR, often “run by people who have spent years working for the candidate.”
Political satirists Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart mocked the alleged absence of a relationship between candidates and their superPACs in a segment for “The Daily Show.” Stewart, who began running Colbert’s superPAC while Colbert explored a run in South Carolina (he ended up teaming up with Herman Cain, and the two of them got about one percent of the vote). Colbert and Stewart pointed out the loophole (or “loop-chasm”) in the law, which says that candidates cannot “coordinate” with superPACs. A candidate can talk to superPACs through the media. And the people running the superPACs can listen.
Americans are largely in favor of limiting how much U.S. corporations can spend to influence elections. Three-quarters of Americans – including nearly two-thirds (64%) of Republicans – agree with placing limitations on corporate influence.
“The superPACs are metastasizing,” a campaign finance lawyer told NPR. “I think it’s very disturbing that the groups are bigger than the candidates and almost bigger than the party committees themselves.” The other concern often raised about the superPACS is that the lack of campaign sponsorship (“I approve this message”) may encourage the inclusion of misleading or outright false information.
The influence of superPACS is already being felt at this early stage of the campaign – just ask Newt Gingrich.The degree to which they will mire us in negativity as the election progresses is as of yet unclear. What seems likely is that the 2012 campaign may look very different from anything we’ve seen before.