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Conventions aside, super PACs reign supreme

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel points at the audience at the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, N.C. on the first day of the Democratic National Convention (DNC). Emanuel’s resignation from the Obama campaign to raise big-money funds shows the primacy of newly empowered Super PACs

There's nothing like coming up short in campaign contributions to sharpen the focus for a presidential campaign. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is leaving his position as national co-chairman of President Barack Obama's re-election committee, to focus on more pressing business: Raising big money for a pro-Obama super PAC.

Emanuel's fundraising talents are legendary among Democratic leaders, who are increasingly worried that they've slipped far behind their Republican rivals when it comes to super PAC donations. His new role signals an abrupt shift in priorities for  Obama's campaign, according to Liz Bartolomeo of the Sunlight Foundation, a watchdog group working to track campaign spending.

Individuals, unions and businesses were cleared to give unlimited donations to political causes under the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling. Still, Bartolomeo said the Democrats headed into their convention trying to avoid the appearance of courting big money. "They've always been resistant to the super PACs," she said. "They've been a little hesitant to play the game."

Now that the Democrats are scrambling to catch up on big-money donations, Bartomeo said, they're fully embracing the super PACs at their convention in Charlotte, N.C. Emanuel, President Obama's former chief of staff, confirmed at the convention that he will be "helping" Priorities USA Action. The group hosted a big-money reception last night and reported it has been making progress, raising $10 million in the past month. Bartolomeo said the group remains far behind the Republican super PACs.  The Sunlight Foundation reports that the GOP-aligned group Restore Our Future had over $85 million as of the end of July, compared to $25 million for Priorities USA Action.

A series of so-called "Super-O-Rama" events, sponsored by the super PACs, are taking place outside the official activities of the Democratic convention. They include a Foo Fighters concert Wednesday night, and a brunch for Democratic lawmakers held earlier Wednesday by billionaire hedge fund investor Jim Simons.

Such gatherings haven't gotten the attention they should, according to Charles Lewis, a professor of investigative journalism at American University and founder of the Center for Public Integrity. "Most conventioneers are not even invited to some of these fancy receptions," said Lewis. "This is really for billionaires only."

Former Clinton administration advisor Lanny Davis complained that the emphasis on the super PACs, and their role in funding negative ads, has only alienated American voters. He said the spending has only led Obama and Romney to a draw in the public opinion polls. "What's the gap between them? Nothing! Who's ahead? Nobody," Davis said. He predicted that the winner of the election will come down to the candidate who talks about what the American people care about.

Sarah Gardner: If we needed any more confirmation that super PACs have moved front and center in this year's presidential race, we got it today. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is leaving his post as national co-chair of the Obama campaign to raise big money for a pro-Obama super PAC. Rahm Emanuel's known to be pretty good at fundraising and the Democrats need some help in that arena this year. They've slipped far behind their Republican rivals when it comes to super PAC donations.

Marketplace's Bob Moon reports.


Bob Moon: The Democrats are fully embracing the super PACs now that they're scrambling to catch-up on big-money donations. The Sunlight Foundation's Liz Bartolomeo has been tracking fundraising activities at both conventions. She says the Democrats headed into their gathering trying to avoid the appearance of courting big money.

Liz Bartolomeo: They've always been resistant to the superPACs. They've been a little hesitant to play the game.

But now, the former White House chief of staff himself will be pitching for Priorities USA Action. Bartolomeo says that group hosted a big-money reception last night and reported it's been making progress, raising $10 million in the past month.

Bartolomeo: That puts them still very, very far behind what the Republicans have. So one of the Republican super PACs, Restore Our Future, had over $85 million as of the end of July, whereas Priorities USA only had about $25 million.

She says the push is now clearly on at the Democratic convention, with a series of so-called "Super-O-Rama" events sponsored by the super PACs. They include a Foo Fighters concert tonight, and a brunch for Democratic lawmakers held today by billionaire hedge fund investor Jim Simons.

Charles Lewis is the founder of the Center for Public Integrity. He says gatherings like that -- and in the box seats overlooking the arena -- haven't gotten the attention they should.

Charles Lewis: Most conventioneers are not even invited to some of these fancy receptions and these skyboxes. This is really for billionaires only.

Former Clinton administration advisor Lanny Davis complains the emphasis on the Super PACs, and their role in funding negative ads, has only alienated American voters. And he says all the spending has only led Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney to a draw in the public opinion polls.

Lanny Davis: What's the gap between them? Nothing! Who's ahead? Nobody.

In the end, he says, who wins will ultimately come down to the candidate who talks about what the American people care about.

I'm Bob Moon for Marketplace.

About the author

Bob Moon is Marketplace’s senior business correspondent, based in Los Angeles.
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Setting aside the obvious political impact of the billion dollar super PACS, I would love to hear an analysis of where this money winds up and how this influx of billions of dollars effects the economy, directly or indirectly. I mean, when the Koch Brothers write checks for tens of millions of dollars, somebody is benefitting from that financially. Is there a boom in the advertising industry? Are out of work actors getting jobs narrating the attack ads?

In short, is this how money from the 1% is finally going to trickle down?

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