The early reports were that Sheldon Adelson plowed another $5 million into the SuperPAC supporting Newt Gingrich. It turns out that the money specifically came from Sheldon’s wife Miriam. I’m not sure why the Adelsons made this distinction, other than so Sheldon can technically reduce what he said he spent on political advertising in the 2012 cycle. Because SuperPAC donations are unlimited and don’t have to be disclosed.
In fact, everything Adelson is doing with the Winning Our Future PAC could have been done in prior years before Citizens United. We saw billionaires like Bob Perry give undisclosed large amounts to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth as far back as 2004. Back then, the 527s were the scourge, named after the portion of the tax code that allowed the donations. I’m sure this is not Adelson’s first go-round with massive political spending. And he’s up to $10 million between him and his wife this year.
And yet the SuperPAC really did revolutionize this. Mostly it just changed the culture around political spending. Not only did it open up corporations to donate, but it added a familiarity to the process for voters. People may say out loud that they’re appalled by the outside ads, but they have grown accustomed to them. And the wealthy individuals themselves, like the Kochs, like Adelson, have become more brazen at using their funds to bankroll their preferred candidates. It may not be a full change to the campaign finance rules to see rich individuals spending, but it’s a change to the cultural zeitgeist.
That is simply reinforced by the fact that SuperPACs have spent $30 million on ads already this primary season, and we’re barely a month into it. The massive online fundraising from candidates like Barack Obama – and before that Howard Dean – has been rendered irrelevant by the new system. Newt Gingrich has not had to show any particular fundraising prowess to get in a position to win the nomination. Even Romney’s numbers are nowhere near the 2008 Obama level. And yet they can get a handful of billionaires to scratch off a check to them that levels (or unlevels) the playing field all by itself.
The SuperPAC spending in the general election will be out of control. Maybe individual races, like in Massachusetts, will be able to avoid it through some gentleperson’s agreement. But that’s not going to be possible for the Presidential race. We’ll see if public disgust with the spectacle leads to a push for real changes to the system. I’m not betting on it. Whoever gets elected will have benefited from the process; why would they want to change it?