De-Mystifying Super PACs: Understanding Their Role in Modern Politics

For decades, the political action committee (PAC) has been a foundational element of American politics. However, super PACs are relatively new — the concept was formalized on the heels of a landmark 2010 Supreme Court case. 

Today, super PACs remain a bit mysterious; many people are unclear about what these committees are, what rules they play by, and what their purpose is. Here is everything you need to know about super PACs. 

What’s a Super PAC?

A super PAC is an independent, expenditure-only committee that can raise and spend unlimited sums of money from individuals, corporations, unions, and other organizations. 

Unlike traditional PACs, which have strict contribution limits and can donate directly to candidates, super PACs operate independently and are prohibited from coordinating their activities with any political party or candidate. 

The primary purpose of these political action committees is to influence the outcome of elections through independent expenditures, including TV ads, mailers, and digital campaigns. These expenditures are typically focused on either advocating for a candidate the committee supports or opposing an entity that the PAC has aligned itself against. 

Additionally, super PACs may run ads for or against specific political issues. These entities typically focus on regional or national issues that have the potential to sway an election in favor of a particular candidate. 

The Origins of Super PACs

Super PACs can trace their origins back to a relatively recent pair of landmark Supreme Court cases.

Citizens United v. FEC

In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, Citizens United sought federal court relief against the FEC’s ban on corporate electioneering communication. While the original filing was submitted to a federal circuit court in 2008, the case ultimately made its way to the United States Supreme Court. The ruling was issued in January 2010.

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Citizens United. The ruling allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts of money on political campaigns, arguing that such spending is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment. This decision led to the creation of super PACs. 

SpeechNow.org v. FEC

Shortly after the Citizens United decision, another court case, SpeechNow.org v. FEC, further expanded the influence of super PACs. This ruling allowed individuals to contribute unlimited amounts of money to independent expenditure-only committees, solidifying the framework for super PACs as we know them today.

To recap, the Citizens United v. FEC ruling set the stage for unlimited contributions, provided that the donor organization was not acting in concert with the candidate or political party they were supporting. The SpeechNow.org case authorized donors to contribute as much as they wanted to super PACs. For context, individuals can donate only a few thousand dollars to a traditional political action committee. 

How Super PACs Work

The basic functioning of super PACs is straightforward and can be divided into the following three basic steps: 

Fundraising

After being formed and registering with the FEC, a super PAC can engage in fundraising efforts. It can raise unlimited amounts of money from various sources, including businesses and individual donors. This has led to a surge in political spending, with wealthy individuals and organizations pouring millions into super PACs to support their preferred candidates or causes. 

Spending

Next, super PACs spend their funds on independent political activities, including advertising, voter outreach, and advocacy campaigns. They often employ sophisticated data analytics and marketing strategies to target specific voter demographics and sway public opinion.

The “independent” component of spending rules is of particular note. Under FEC rules, super PACs cannot coordinate or communicate with the candidate or party they are supporting. 

On the one hand, this lack of direct collaboration can lead to a misalignment of messaging between candidates and the PACs that support them. However, most candidates will welcome any additional media coverage and marketing. Additionally, the most passionate committees generally have a good idea of how their candidates like to present themselves to the public. 

Super PACs are also well-known for running ads opposing political rivals. This approach allows them to showcase an opponent’s shortcomings and controversial stances on key issues, thereby swaying swing voters toward the committee’s preferred candidate. 

By allowing super PACs to run these types of ads, candidates can distance themselves from political mudslinging while also connecting with undecided voters. 

Reporting Requirements

Like other types of committees, super PACs are subject to stringent reporting requirements. They are required to disclose their donors and expenditures to the Federal Election Commission. These reports provide some transparency, but critics argue that independent expenditure committees should face additional regulations.

The biggest restriction facing super PACs is the prohibition against working in concert with candidates and political parties. Violating these rules can lead to harsh penalties, including fines and potentially even dissolution of the committee. 

Navigating the World of PACs With Aristotle

If you are involved with managing a super PAC or another type of political action committee, it’s vital that you equip your team with the right data and technology tools. At Aristotle, we provide a suite of solutions designed to help political action committees simplify compliance and maximize their reach. 

Additionally, Aristotle is a leader in political data and can provide you with millions of voter and consumer files along with over one million monthly mover files, which are invaluable for fundraising campaigns. If you’d like to learn more about Aristotle and our tools for PACs, schedule a demo.


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