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SuperPACs Are Not So Super In 2016

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's superPAC is a juggernaut, raising well over $100 million. But he has sputtered in the GOP primary.
Andrew Harrer
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's superPAC is a juggernaut, raising well over $100 million. But he has sputtered in the GOP primary.

When this presidential campaign got underway last spring, the buzz was that a candidate would be propelled by passing off the heavy costs of TV advertising to a friendly superPAC. But now the opposite is true.

Donald Trump, leading the Republican field, has no superPAC. Some other superPACs are pouring cash into TV, but their candidates are stuck low in the polls.

Trump just recently started buying TV time, after months of depending on news coverage to promote his campaign.

Meanwhile, Jeb Bush's superPAC, Right To Rise USA, has spent $47.5 million on TV, according to NBC News and the media firm SMG/Delta. Bush has been stuck in the lower tiers of polls for months.

SMG/Delta and NBC News calculate that Right To Rise accounts for 97 percent of Bush's TV spending and more than one-third of TV spending by all presidential candidates in both parties.

SuperPACs are so super because they take unlimited contributions from wealthy donors, which the candidate's campaign cannot accept. That's why Democrat Bernie Sanders refuses to have one.

But John Feehery, a veteran Republican adviser, cited Right To Rise USA as an example of how superPACs sometimes are counterproductive.

Feehery said, "If you put all of your most creative thinkers at the superPAC — [longtime Bush family political strategist] Mike Murphy for example, is at the Bush superPAC — that has actually kept him out of the day-to-day decision-making of the campaign, which I do think has hurt the Bush campaign. They really do miss his creative thinking."

This is just the second presidential election since superPACs became legal. In 2012 they were attack dogs. Most notably, the Mitt Romney superPAC ripped into Newt Gingrich in the Republican primaries.

This cycle, superPACs have been doing positive messages about their own candidates. But the Republicans with the biggest outside spending — Christie and John Kasich, along with Bush — are barely breaking 10 percent in the polls.

SuperPACs also can keep candidates afloat when the campaign money runs low, although last year Rick Perry and Bobby Jindal discovered that couldn't go on indefinitely.

"It might help us understand why there are still so many people in the Republican primary," said Diana Dwyre, a political scientist at California State University, Chico.

She suggested that might be because superPAC donors aren't always in sync with the voters.

"I mean if they were picking horses at the track, they'd probably be more strategic about it than the way some of them are picking where to throw their dollars," she said.

And so, except for advertising, nobody's figured out what a superPAC can do that truly helps a presidential hopeful.

Jindal and Carly Fiorina had superPACs running their campaign events; the candidate was essentially a guest. Jindal dropped out in November. Fiorina is barely hanging on.

The most unlikely superPAC success of 2016 may turn out to be a Democratic group from 2013 and 2014. Long before Hillary Clinton launched her campaign, Ready For Hillary built an email list of nearly 4 million Clinton supporters. The Clinton campaign now has that list.

Democratic consultant Phil Singer said, "The Ready for Hillary operation created a significant amount of data, and might prove to be a classic model for how to use an outside group to propel a candidacy."

Dwyre said superPACs can do only so much. "If you're not a good candidate, if you don't have the other ingredients there, it's not going to matter whether you have a big superPAC behind you," she said.

But that's a factor unlikely to deter any White House hopeful from setting one up.

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Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.