How did the super PAC change the way presidential candidates run their campaigns?
The same laws that were in effect for the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections are still in effect for the 2016 election. But the super PAC gets around those laws, and candidates are using them to do more of the tasks that used to be done by exploratory committees and candidate committees.
Forming exploratory committees used to signal the start of the invisible primary, when presidential hopefuls compete to win the support of party leaders and voters in the year before the actual primaries begin. What makes this period so important is that, with very few exceptions, over the last nine presidential elections the major- party candidates who had the most party endorsements and were ahead in the polls and in fundraising by the time of the Iowa caucuses went on to win the nomination.27
An exploratory committee is not a candidate committee, but a way for a politician to explore the possibility of becoming a candidate, to "test the waters." Such a committee is advantageous for a politician who genuinely does not know whether it is feasible to become a candidate. The committee must raise funds in compliance with FECA limits and prohibitions, but it does not have to file disclosure reports; and if the politician decides not to run, there will be no public record of the committee's activities.
The advantage for politicians who are simply being coy about announcing themselves as candidates is that the exploratory committee allows them to raise and spend money on such activities as travel and polls without triggering the FECA requirement to form a candidate committee. Spending more than $5,000 on such activities through their leadership PACs would trigger that requirement.28
The 2008 presidential election started off the same way as elections going back to 1980. By mid-J anuary 2007, the most prominent presidential hopefuls in each party—Senators Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain, and Governor Mitt Romney— had all formed exploratory committees. Within three weeks all had announced their candidacies. The pattern continued in 2011, as Romney and other Republican contenders formed their own exploratory committees.29
The 2016 election did not start off this way, though. Some candidates quickly realized that super PACs could take the place of exploratory committees. Super PACs are legally independent committees, not formed by or coordinated with candidates, so they can spend unlimited sums of money without triggering the $5,000 limit. Candidates can test the waters without forming the exploratory committee that would allow them to raise money legally, because legally they are not raising any money at all. And as long as candidates are not officially candidates, they can work with and raise funds for the super PAC that supports them without breaking any laws. Initial 2016 front-runners Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, for example, both had super PACs, but neither one formed an exploratory committee and both put off announcing their candidacies.30
Super PACs became campaign necessities. Despite being legally independent of the candidates they support, some candidates used them to pay for the kinds of jobs that candidate committees used to do—jobs such as phone banks, get-out-the-vote drives, data collection, and opposition research. PACs that became super because they were formally independent of candidates' and parties' campaigns grew even more super as subcontractors for those campaigns.31
Stephen Colbert formed a super PAC on his Comedy Central TV show,