The Colbert Report. What was that about?
It was about making fun of the unenforceable rules about disclosure and coordination. It did not start out that way, though. Apparently Colbert did not have a very good idea what to do with his idea for the Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow super PAC. Trevor Potter, who was the PAC's lawyer, said that decisions to make fun of flimsy rules "evolved in wonderful spontaneity."32
Colbert told his audience that he had a "simple dream: to use the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling to fashion a massive money cannon that would make all those who seek the White House quake with fear and beg our allegiance ... in strict accordance with federal election law."33
Colbert thought his super PAC would get tons of corporate money and was disappointed when he got none. Potter told him that super PACs have to disclose their donors, and explained that corporations were not eager to make their contributions public because they might upset shareholders and customers. But he added that they might be willing to give to tax-exempt 501(c) groups that did not disclose their donors.
So Colbert formed a 501(c)(4), initially called Anonymous Shell Corporation, but later renamed Colbert Super PAC SHH. Potter reminded him that the group's major purpose had to be social and educational, and Colbert assured him that it would educate Americans by telling them that gay people cause earthquakes.
Colbert was pleased to hear that he could keep contributions to his super PAC secret by routing them through his 501(c)(4), but he needed assurance that this was legal:
colbert You mean I can take secret donations from my 501(c)(4) and give them to my supposedly transparent super PAC? potter And it will say "Given by your (c)(4)."
COLBERT What is the difference between that and money laundering?
potter It's hard to say.34
One week later, Colbert sent an email to supporters of Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, telling them how to make secret contributions to the super PAC: "Already we have gotten a massive donation from [name withheld], a kind and [adjective withheld] person who only wants to [objective withheld]."35
Colbert then decided that he wanted to be a candidate himself. Told that he could not run his super PAC while running for office, he turned the PAC over to Jon Stewart, who was then host of Comedy Central's Daily Show. He then announced he was forming an exploratory committee to lay the groundwork for his possible candidacy for "President of the United States of South Carolina."
Stewart wanted to use the super PAC to run ads supporting Colbert's campaign. But to emphasize his compliance with the laws that required him to operate completely independently from Colbert, he renamed the Colbert PAC the Definitely Not Coordinating With Stephen Colbert Super PAC.36
Potter cautioned Stewart that he and Colbert could not discuss what the ads would say, or when and where they would air, because that would meet the legal definition of coordination. What Colbert could do was to speak on television, simply as a citizen, to say what he wished Stewart's super PAC would do—and "take the risk" that Stewart might be watching and use that information.37
Colbert announced his candidacy too late to get on the ballot for South Carolina's Republican primary, so he and Stewart's super PAC urged Republicans to vote for former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain as a proxy. The Tea Party favorite was actually not a candidate anymore, having suspended his own presidential campaign after allegations of sexual misconduct. But he was still on the ballot and Colbert was not. Colbert and Cain held a joint campaign rally the day before the vote to whip up interest, but received only i percent of the vote.38
Jeb Bush’s super PAC did not help him at all. And Hillary Clinton’s super PAC did not help her fend off Bernie Sanders. So how big a deal are super PACs, really?
One of the biggest surprises of 2015 was the yawning gap between the large sum of money in Jeb Bush's super PAC and his low ranking in the polls. No one predicted such a thing. Nor could anyone have predicted that Hillary Clinton, whose super PAC far outstripped those of her few Democratic rivals, would see her fifty-six-point lead in the polls over Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) shrink to just eight points by April 2016. And Sanders shot up in the polls despite having no super PAC.39
The biggest shock was the startling rise of billionaire real estate mogul and reality TV star Donald Trump to the top of the polls in the Republican primary. Trump came in from outside the party, with no experience in politics and government, and no ties to the GOP establishment. He also had no super PAC, but he did not need one. His name recognition as host of "The Apprentice" and the prodigious talent for populist demagoguery he demonstrated on the stump earned him tens of millions of dollars' worth of free media.
We have seen other right-wing demagogues use their candidacies to stir up grassroots nativism, but they remained on the political fringes; Trump became a front-runner, which has never happened before.40
Only slightly less shocking was the rise of Texas senator Ted Cruz. Unlike Trump, Cruz was an insider, a Republican politician with several years of experience in federal and state government. And he had the second-biggest Republican super PAC. But this Tea Party favorite was also a true-believing conservative ideologue who challenged the GOP establishment from his first days in the Senate, putting himself on the outside of his own party, and making himself one of the most detested men in politics. That did not stop him from rising to second place in the polls, despite spending only a bit more than Trump on ads.41
Bush, on the other hand, spent tens of millions of dollars on ads without raising his poll numbers above 15 percent or winning a single primary. Yet the Right to Rise super PAC might have been a bigger help to his campaign than these figures suggest. It paid for 95 percent of his ad buys because there was three times more money in the super PAC than there was in his campaign committee. Bush might have needed his super PAC simply to stay in the race.42
Maybe we are having difficulty gauging the impact of super PACs because the impact they have had is not what we expected. Most people expected that a flood of super PAC money would quickly eliminate candidates who did not get the biggest contributions. What happened instead was that candidates who could not get the biggest contributions were still able to get enough backing from big donors to keep their campaigns alive. Rather than speed things up by giving one candidate an unbeatable lead early in the race, super PACs may instead slow things down by scattering rich donors' money among several candidates.
As of this writing, in the first months of 2016, it is too early to say that super PACs do not matter. We know they mattered by changing traditional patterns of raising and spending campaign funds. But we have no way of knowing what further effect they might have had without the populist wave that hit both parties in the primaries. And we have yet to see how they will be used in the general election.