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Unlimited contributions give 'Super PACs' power to change presidential race

By Jessica Hopper
Rock Center

With the South Carolina primary less than a week away, residents of the state are being bombarded with a barrage of political advertisements funded by Super PACs.

“It’s coming in fast and furious,” said Randy Cable of South Carolina’s conservative talk radio station WORD.

Cable said that Super PACs are buying up a majority of his station’s air time. 

“They’re a game changer,” Cable told Rock Center Special Correspondent Ted Koppel in an interview scheduled to air Monday night.

This election season is the first presidential race to feel the influence of Super PACs, political action committees that can receive unlimited money from individuals, corporations and unions.  Some of these Super PACs have morphed into powerful outside organizations working solely on electing a presidential candidate of their choosing.  While a campaign supporter can only donate $2500 directly to a presidential candidate, he or she can donate unlimited amounts of money to a Super PAC supporting the same candidate. 

“The Super PACs are outspending the candidate committees two to one at this point in time,” Cable said.  “The ones that are buying the most [air time] are going to have the biggest impact.  You know, just like in the world of business and advertising, politics goes the same way.  Those that spend the most have the biggest impact.”

Every major GOP presidential candidate has a Super PAC supporting their campaign.  Super PACs are supposed to operate independently of the candidates, meaning they can’t communicate directly with the politicians and their campaign staff.  Super PACs have been effective even with the communication barrier, because they are often run by people who already know how the candidates think.  A look at whose running the Super PACs reveals a roster of former staffers and advisers to the presidential candidates. 

Carl Forti, a former political director for Mitt Romney, helped launch the ‘Restore Our Future’ Super PAC in 2010. The Super PAC supports Romney's campaign for president.

Koppel asked Forti, "Some of the research I've read on you and your organization suggests that you may by the end of this political year have spent four hundred million dollars on the campaign. Is that fair? Does that seem reasonable?"

Forti responded by saying, "Potentially. Well, that seems a little high probably, but between the different entities it may be three hundred, three-fifty."

Of those criticizing the millions raised by Super PACs, Forti said, “There’s a lot of criticism leveled at Super PACs, but we’re just operating under the laws as provided."

The Citizens United Supreme Court decision in 2010 allowed the unique political action committees to form.  In the case of Citizens United against the Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court ultimately ruled that the government could not limit political spending by corporations.

Some of this election year’s most negative advertising has come from Super PACs, giving candidates a way to effectively attack an opponent without having the blame pinned directly on them. 

At a press conference held Monday morning in South Carolina, Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman cited the negative tone of this year's campaign when he announced he was dropping out of the race.

"This race has degenerated into an onslaught of negative and personal attacks not worthy of the American people and not worthy of this critical time in our nation's history," Huntsman said.

Political analysts say that an anti-Newt Gingrich ad run by ‘Restore Our Future’ during the lead-up to the Iowa Caucuses significantly impacted Gingrich’s one-time lead. Gingrich finished fourth in the caucuses.

“We learned in Iowa, if you unilaterally disarm, you might as well not run.  If you allow other candidates to have a scorched earth, multimillion dollar ad campaign and there’s nothing that responds, they simply, by constant defamation drive you down,” Gingrich told Koppel.

Following Gingrich’s finish in Iowa, a Super PAC supporting the former Speaker of the House called ‘Winning Our Future,’ received a $5 million donation from wealthy casino owner Sheldon Adelson.  In South Carolina, ‘Winning Our Future’ has launched anti-Romney advertisements.

While Gingrich has publicly denounced the negative advertisement, the Super PAC supporting him continues to run the ad that paints Romney as a greedy businessman and attacks his record from his days at venture capital firm Bain Capital.

“We’re now entering a world where until the laws are changed, every serious campaign will have one or more Super PACs.  They will spend an absurd amount of money and it will virtually all be negative. That’s a fact,” Gingrich said.  “Given the playing field right now, you have no choice.”

The power of the Super PAC has been mocked by comedian Stephen Colbert, host of Comedy Central's 'The Colbert Report.'  Colbert created his own Super PAC and recently handed over control of it to Jon Stewart, renaming it ‘The Definitely Not Coordinated with Stephen Colbert Super PAC.’ 

Colbert handed over control to form an exploratory committee about a possible presidential run in South Carolina.  His Super PAC also launched a satirical anti-Romney advertisement that likened the former Massachusetts governor to a serial killer, implying that Romney killed businesses. 

Colbert talked to Koppel shortly before he relinquished control of his Super PAC.

“It would be stupid to be in the 2012 campaign or want your voice heard in the 2012 campaign and not have a Super PAC,” Colbert said. “I mean, the RNC, the DNC, those organizations really don’t mean much anymore.  Karl Rove has more money than the RNC.”

Back in South Carolina, the advertisements seem to be getting nastier by the day as the million dollar donations continue to pour in.

“These Super PACs don’t have reputations to protect, so I think that there is a tendency for them to get nastier in the ads that they run and they don’t have the same restraints operating on them as candidate committees do,” said Ellen Weintraub, a commissioner for the Federal Election Commission.

Weintraub and the FEC are tasked with regulating the Super PACs. Weintraub said that a key difference between the PACs and the candidate committees is that the Super PACs do not have to disclose their donors as often.  The first time that many of the Super PACs will disclose their donors will be at the end of January, which means that voters will have cast their vote in several key primaries before knowing who is behind the advertisements that flooded their televisions and radios. 

“At some point, you have to step back from the regulations, you know, take your face out of the book and see the forest for the trees,” Weintraub said.  “And I think for a lot of people out there, seeing the massive amounts of money that are being raised and spent by groups in the candidates’ names effectively on the outside, and seeing that these groups do appear to have some kind of connection to the candidates. I think it’s going to raise a lot of questions for the public.”

So how do political advertisements get so nasty? Unlike consumer advertisements, political ads do not have to be vetted by the Federal Trade Commission.

“I mean it’s actually more difficult to sell somebody white bread than it is to sell a president getting into the White House,” said Linda Kaplan Thaler, an advertising executive.

Thaler is behind campaigns like Wendy’s advertising campaign and the Toys R’ Us popular jingle, ‘I Don’t Want to Grow Up.’ Thaler said that when it comes to consumer advertising, it’s about building a love for the brand. With politicians, it’s different. 

“You know, when it comes to politics, it’s not so much about, you know, that I have to love the candidate I’m voting for.  It’s very often, I have to dislike him the least,” Thaler said.

Editor's Note: This report has been updated to include transcription from Ted Koppel's interview with Carl Forti. Ted Koppel's in-depth look at Super PACs airs Monday, January 16 at 10pm/9c on NBC's Rock Center with Brian Williams.