If you haven’t already seen it, Stephen Colbert’s “Mitt the Ripper” super PAC ad, narrated ominously by John Lithgow, is hilarious:

Super PACs themselves aren’t so funny. The content might be laughable, but the concept isn’t, even by pretty appalling US campaign finance standards. These political action committee ads, or 527s on steroids, were made possible by a 2010 Supreme Court ruling relaxing campaign spending rules. The results make the 2004 Swift Boat attacks on John Kerry look like eskimo kisses.

Championed by Republicans, they’ve kept minor players in the race – and allowed them to tear their most likely nominee Mitt Romney to shreds so that he limps over the finish line bloodied, bruised and with a whole swag of baggage to gift to the incumbent’s campaign. Super PACs are not allowed to coordinate directly with candidates or political parties but they allow unlimited sums from corporations, unions and other groups and individuals. Very, very wealthy individuals like Gingrich backer Sheldon Adelson. Many of the groups are staffed by long-time supporters or former aides of the candidates and a lot of the donors will remain unknown until January 31 when some super PACs are required to report their finances to the Federal Election Commission.

According to federal campaign records, super PACs have spent a total of $26 million so far and at least $6 million on the upcoming South Carolina primary. According to The National Journal: “… the candidates themselves have spent only about $2.7 million on television because the PACs have done so much of the heavy lifting. Their blitz buys a ton of ads in a state where it generally costs less than $300,000 to nearly saturate the airwaves for a week.”

Now fresh analysis from the Associated Press has shown the ads have affected primary results more than other forms of campaigning, including personal appearances by candidates, stump speeches or town hall meetings. The proud tradition of so-called “retail politics” in US primaries — or as Gillard would brand it “wearing out the shoe leather” — is looking more than little shaky at this point.

But it’s worth pausing before we get all finger pointy about the dire state of US democracy. The money sunk into super PACs might make Anthony “there’s more where that came from” Ball’s Clubs Australia campaign spend pale in comparison, but as today’s headlines tell us, our own version of that particular brand of message management isn’t any less effective.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW