There's been one clear bugaboo in this year's presidential election: the super PAC. But with Super Tuesday in the rearview mirror, it's not exactly clear that the fundraising beasts that accept unlimited individual and corporate donations and run negative ads with impunity turned out to be the scary monsters that gobbled up democracy.
In fact, in the specific case of the Republican primary battle, it could be argued that they've actually made the race more democratic.
Two things are certain about super PACs at this point. First, they will increase aggregate spending on political advertising to levels previously unseen. Borrell Associates estimated last week that ad spending for the 2012 elections could reach $9.8 billion, vs. $7 billion in 2008. Second, they'll help increase the amount of negative advertising. Example: The lion's share of spending by the pro-Mitt Romney Super PAC has been on negative advertising, mainly against Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum.
Indeed, one of the major benefits of these tools is that they do all the dirty work of shaping attacks on rivals, leaving the candidate out of it.
Much of the hating on super PACs comes from a kneejerk disdain for negative campaigning, which supposedly taints the sanctity of American political discourse and suppresses voter turnout.
Political mudslinging isn't new. Thomas Jefferson, for example, was described as the anti-Christ, kicking off a robust history of attack ads. The difference is that it's now clear an attack is being launched.
"I'd argue that given the impact of social media and a 24/7 news cycle, which have brought such transparency to our political system, it's harder to get away with campaign high jinks," said Pete Snyder, chairman of VA Victory 2012, a coordinated effort by Virginia Republicans to help elect GOP candidates to Congress and the White House. "They have made a much tamer playing field. Our Founding Fathers would eat for lunch most of the "softies' we deal with today."
Contrary to popular belief, negative ads often have the virtue of being true—or at least closer than self-congratulatory positive ads—and so provide informational value.
Media encourages negativity
Media handwringing over negative ads represents a straight-up hypocrisy of American political journalism. In a forthcoming paper to be published in the book "Can We Talk? The Rise of Rude, Nasty, Stubborn Politics," Vanderbilt University professor John Geer makes a persuasive argument that the reason negative ads work is because the press is so eager to cover them.
Remember the Swift Boats Veterans for Truth spot that twisted the knife in John Kerry in 2004? Though seen by just 1% of the population, The New York Times and Washington Post published well over 300 stories about it, putting it in front of millions more.
In other words, the media incentivize negativity.
In an interview, Mr. Geer added that other elements of the political climate, most significantly a divided Republican Party and a polarized nation, have had an impact. "A large amount of negative advertising is a proxy for a high-stakes race," he said.
While Mr. Geer said it's possible that Super PACs will lead to more negative advertising, we simply don't have the data to conclude that now.
Perhaps a bigger concern about super PACs is that individuals, corporations and unions injecting untold amounts of money into the system will turn it into a game of whoever has the most money wins. That may turn out to be the case over the long haul, but the returns are far from in.
No cake-walk for best-funded
Mr. Romney, the Republican front-runner with 421 delegates, has had the most super PAC support and the fullest campaign coffers. But getting to a point where his nomination looks probable at best hasn't been easy for him.
His super PAC, Restore Our Future, has spent twice as much as Mr. Gingrich's and almost seven times as much as Rick Santorum's—and that 's not even considering what the campaigns themselves have spent. And yet the race has not been cinched.
Meanwhile super PAC support has kept Messrs. Gingrich and Santorum in the race, arguably acting as a lifeline, yielding a longer and more interesting race.
It's possible that without super PACs, the contest would be over by now, with the guy who had raised the most money sealing the deal. (Mr. Romney's campaign has raised $63 million, Mr. Gingrich's $18 million and Mr. Santorum's $6.7 million.) It's hard to see how that result would somehow be more democratic.
Paul Fabrizio, professor of political science at McMurry, thinks super PACs' role has been exaggerated partly because the media's focus on money obscures many other ingredients of a winning campaign.
"To think that a few more commercials is the key to these races and that the candidate who spends the most in these states is automatically the winner forces us to ignore the role that a state's political history, party ID, local issues, state of the economy, number of times the candidate has visited a place, likeability of the candidate to voters, all play in the election," Mr. Fabrizio said.
There's also the all-important ground game, where super PACs have limited influence because they are forbidden from coordinating with candidates.
None of this to say that super PACs don't merit intense scrutiny. Just as no one can prove that they're destroying the American electoral politics, no one can be assured that massive outlays by wealthy companies or individuals, such as Harold Simmons and Sheldon Adelson, won't unduly add to their sway in policy-making and result in bad policy should their candidates' win.
Super PACs need to be watched, but that doesn't mean we should assume that they're the nefarious game changers they're made out to be.