Campaign Trail

Super PACs give candidates staying power

John Dimsdale Jan 11, 2012

Kai Ryssdal: OK, so all that stuff Dubner and I were just talking about? Put it aside for just a second. Because there’s economic theory, and then there’s political reality — that bit Dubner was talking about, where candidates still want all the money they can get.

Usually on the morning after a big primary, winners wake up to extra money coming in. Losers start thinking about whether they have the money to go on.

This year, though, changes to campaign finance laws have brought us the super PAC — political action committees that can spend as much as they want on almost whatever they want. And that’s changing the way campaigns are run.

Our Washington bureau chief John Dimsdale reports.

John Dimsdale: Super PACs have allowed candidates to carry out what’s been called the Tony Soprano strategy: Let your friends attack your opponents on TV while you, the candidate, keep your hands clean.

Patrick Griffin: The campaign can run nothing but sweetness and light if the super PAC is willing to come in and spend the kind of money to define your opponent.

New Hampshire Republican strategist Patrick Griffin.

Griffin: The Romney super PAC literally took 20 points out of Newt Gingrich’s hide in about 20 days.

Mitt Romney still faces five other contenders for the GOP nomination. Larry Sabbato, with the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, says the prospect of unlimited financial support from super PACs is keeping the losers in the race.

Larry Sabbato: Super PACs insure that most of these candidates won’t run out of money nearly as quickly as they would have in the old days when they had to depend on small, direct contributions.

And even when candidates drop out, the super PACs that support them can switch allegiances. Terry Madonna is a political science professor at Franklin and Marshall College.

Terry Madonna: The super PACs are free to support one candidate one week and second candidate in a second or third week. They’re free to run positive commercials or negative commercials about any and all of the candidates. They have a great deal of latitude.

Madonna says super PACs offer even marginal candidates the prospect of a quick influx of cash, like the $5 million donated by a single Newt Gingrich supporter just last week.

In Washington, I’m John Dimsdale for Marketplace.

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