How close did candidates and super PACs get in 2012?

The presidential super PACs are a good example. "We don't control outside groups," President Obama's press secretary told the press soon after the pro-Obama Priorities USA Action super PAC was formed; "These are not people working for the administration."20 That was true: the people in question had left their White House jobs several weeks before founding the PAC. And the co-founders of the pro-Romney Restore Our Future super PAC had not worked for Romney since his 2008 primary campaign.21

The distinction between coordination and independence "essentially collapsed" in 2012, said legal scholar Richard Briffault; reform lawyer Paul S. Ryan saw things the same way, saying "many super PACs are joined at the hip with candidates."22 Not everyone saw something to worry about. Legal scholar Bradley A. Smith thought that super PACs' impact on elections had been overblown; what worried him was that arguments like Briffault's and Ryan's "can create a cynicism among the general public."23

Smith realized that in the "commonsense" definition of the term, candidates were coordinating with single-candidate super PACs formed by their associates and former aides. But it is the legal definition that matters, he said, and it requires something more: "the opportunity for quid pro quo bargaining. Absent actual coordination—that is, actual discussions and dealings between the parties—that crucial link is missing."24 Smith saw no need either for new rules or stronger enforcement of existing ones.

Calls for new rules continued after 2012. Briffault proposed a rule change that would treat single-candidate PACs run by the candidates' former aides, and for which the candidates themselves solicit contributions, as coordinated with those candidates' official campaign committees. Rep. David Price (D-NC) introduced a bill that would reclassify single-candidate super PACs as part of the candidate's campaign.25

The pattern begun in 2012 shows no sign of ending. There were about twice as many single-candidate super PACs in 2014 as in the 2012 congressional elections, and there will likely be even more in 2016. In the presidential race, Priorities USA Action shifted to supporting Hillary Clinton in 2016, a change made clear when Guy Cecil, the political director for her 2008 presidential campaign, became the

PAC's co-chair. There is no chance that Congress or the FEC will do much to strengthen enforcement of the rules against coordination.26

 
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