Good-government advocates have worried for years that the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, which lifted limits on campaign spending by outside groups, essentially put U.S. elections up for sale to the highest bidder. And a new study by the Sunlight Foundation seemed to confirm those fears, concluding that super PACs spawned by the landmark ruling have accounted for $365 million of the $465 million spent on the presidential campaign and other key races so far this year. (That's 78 percent.) The mountains of cash have certainly bought an unprecedented barrage of negative ads by GOP-friendly groups favoring Mitt Romney, with President Obama's supporters struggling to respond in kind. Still, the ads blanketing swing states don't appear to have had much of an impact, judging by polls. In Pennsylvania and Michigan, for example, Restore Our Future and Americans for Prosperity have spent $18 million trying to make Romney competitive, but he has fallen 8 percentage points behind Obama in both states. Have super PACs fallen flat?
Super PACs are a bust in the presidential campaign: Billionaires might swing some down-ticket races, says Jamelle Bouie at The Washington Post, but they're belly-flopping in the presidential race. There's "a diminishing marginal return to campaign ads — the more you saturate the airwaves, the less effective advertising becomes." Also, being rich doesn't make you smart, and some of these big donors are wasting their millions on politically stupid things, like backing Newt Gingrich.
"Don't sweat the super PAC cash"
They're effective, but not the only game in town: Super PACs "have kept a number of races competitive and put important issues on the table," Steven Law, who directs American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, tells The Wall Street Journal. But super PACs' ability to make a difference was greatest early on, when the campaigns were struggling to define themselves. Now, with candidates making their own final pitches, "we are no longer the market leader."
"Super PAC influence falls short of aims"
Success or failure, super PACs are definitely wrong: Money "cannot do the job by itself," says Harvey Kronberg at Your News Now, but it's undeniably "a huge predictor of election success." That's why Citizens United, especially with its loopholes allowing billionaires and corporations to donate anonymously to "supposedly social welfare nonprofits," is so dangerous. Maybe this time, as critics say, Romney ran too poor a campaign to benefit from super PACs. But nonetheless, "secret campaign contributions" have no place "in a free and open democracy."
"Secrecy fuels super PACs, but money isn't everything"
Read more political coverage at The Week's 2012 Election Center.