The presence of big money from lobbyists, interest groups, and the like in politics—especially election campaigns—is one of the inextricable realities of the modern political system. This overriding presence of influential donors and campaign contributors is part of why so many voters are defecting from the whole process. If nothing else, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has tapped into this dissatisfaction with the big money interests deciding elections.
In fact, his presence in the race alone has changed the way super PACs (Political Action Committees) operate.
The super PACs may be the best example of big money deciding who wins party nominations in elections. These "unaffiliated" campaign promotion funds can circumvent typical contribution limits because of Supreme Court decisions in 2010 that ruled such money-spending a form of protected political speech (so long as the super PACs are working on their own, not directly in conjunction with a particular campaign). These are the groups that fund tens of millions of dollars in negative attack ads that flood the television and radio airwaves each election cycle.
Super PACs Stumped by Trump
The political landscape was certainly different some 24 years ago when Ross Perot's third-party presidential run shifted the outcome of the 1992 general election. Nonetheless, there are parallels between Perot's surprisingly strong performance and the current presidential campaign of Donald Trump. Both were billionaire businessmen who could bankroll their own campaigns without the aid of normal political donors. Trump has even hinted at running as an independent if he becomes unhappy with how the Republican National Committee (RNC) is treating him.
As the rumors grow louder about the GOP establishment seeking any way of blocking Trump's path to the nomination, it's clear that an independent Trump candidacy is a real possibility.
However, Trump's seeming immunity to negative attacks (the "Teflon Don") has forced super PACs to reconsider their typical strategy. This became apparent when the conservative lobby group Club for Growth spent $1 million on attack ads targeting Trump earlier this summer to virtually zero effect. For the significant portion of the electorate that has gravitated to Trump's aggressive bravado and politically-incorrect frankness, traditional political slandering do little to shake their support.
As a result, the super PACs have chosen to hold off on spending their ample money on political advertising yet. While this means that there will likely be a flood of pricey campaign ads all at once when the primaries begin to heat up in the upcoming Spring of 2016, it is still worrying Republican Party strategists.
How exactly has Trump neutralized the influence of the super PACs? With his own celebrity.
Unlike even the most well-known political figures, Donald Trump makes news without paying anyone to report on it. He essentially generates free publicity for his campaign just because we already know who he is. This clever calculation has not only allowed him to refuse super PAC money without spending hardly any of his own on his campaign, but it also means that his opponents are burning money in an attempt to compete. Now, super PACs are sitting on their money rather than waste it.
Other Republican candidates are finding that they can spend millions to promote themselves and still get drowned out in the news by Trump. 41% of all mentions of GOP candidates this year on the news have been of Trump. When you compare the free airtime Trump has received this year to what that amount of time would cost for another candidate, he has received the equivalent of $23.4 million in free coverage on the Big 3 networks (ABC, NBC, and CBS) and a whopping $45.5 million worth of airtime on Fox News.
This is undoubtedly having an impact on the calculus of campaign finance because Trump, as he promised, doesn't have to take anyone else's money. Heck, he barely has to spend his own.