A Fine Line When It Comes To SuperPACs

Under current law, candidates' campaigns are not allowed to coordinate with superPACs, although they clearly benefit from their messages. As result, candidates have performed feats of verbal gymnastics in order to talk about them. Host Scott Simon speaks with NPR's Peter Overby about the role of superPACs in the presidential race.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

For the past few weeks, South Carolina's airwaves have been flooded by political ads, both laudatory and accusatory.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL ADS)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Champion, leader, reformer.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Helped create thousands of jobs.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Including the Bridge to Nowhere and a teapot museum.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: More ruthless and more strict.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: More baggage than the airlines.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: He is the principled conservative.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: The proven conservative leader.

SIMON: Many of these ads aren't made and paid for by a candidate's campaign but groups known as superPACs. NPR's Peter Overby joins us now to talk about superPACs. Peter, thanks very much for being with us.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Glad to be here.

SIMON: Let's understand: we're not talking about the Green Bay Packer offense.

OVERBY: This is true.

SIMON: We've heard this said so many times in recent months. What is a superPAC, and how much money are we talking about?

OVERBY: Let's do the money first - more than $20 million so far spent by the superPACs backing the four Republican candidates. SuperPACs can support one candidate, can raise money from corporations, unions and rich people in any amount, unlike the candidates. They cannot coordinate with the candidates but the candidates can raise money for the superPACs.

SIMON: Now, theoretically, it's an independent relationship, right, in that candidates are not supposed to control superPACs. But conveniently, aren't they often headed by someone with close ties to the candidate?

OVERBY: Yeah. The independence is kind of hedged. And one of the critical ways that it's hedged is that the superPACs are all headed by folks who come out the candidate's organization. The Gingrich superPAC is called Winning Our Future. The two people heading it - one of them was the head of fundraising for Gingrich's old political organization. The Romney's superPAC is called Restore Our Future. It's led by top people from his 2008 presidential bid. There is a superPAC for President Obama. It's called Priorities USA Action. It's headed by Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney, who came out of the Obama White House, and by Paul Begala, who, of course, is a and very prominent Democratic consultant.

SIMON: There was reporting this week that President Obama's superPAC, although it exists, has not been pugnacious.

OVERBY: This is true. So far, Priorities USA Action has spent $321,000 on messaging. That is about one-tenth what the Romney superPAC spent last week in South Carolina and Florida. It's true that President Obama is not in a primary battle but it's also true that there is a conservative organization called Crossroads GPS that's very well funded that has been running ads attacking President Obama and the administration at least since March. So, it seems like Priorities USA Action is going to gear up at some point, but it also seems that they're having trouble raising money.

SIMON: Would not having an aggressive superPAC limit the president financially when it gets to the election season?

OVERBY: Well, he's going to have plenty of money in his campaign account. He's on course right now to raise about as much as he did in 2008. But in 2008, a lot of Republican donors were sitting on their wallets. This time, once the Republican nominee is chosen, it seems likely that the cork is going to pop on the Republican money. There is going to be a lot of money flowing to the apparent nominee, to the party committee and to the superPACs to make sure that they have as much as possible to make Mr. Obama a one-term president. And the Democrats, they're antsy about this kind of outside money. They've never especially liked it, President Obama's never especially liked it, but it seems like the reality is dawning that they really need it.

SIMON: They've campaigned against it.

OVERBY: Yes, yes, absolutely. He stood up in the State of the Union speech two years ago and looked at the Supreme Court justices sitting before him and criticized the Citizens United decision. But those are the rules of the game right now.

SIMON: NPR's Power, Money and Influence correspondent Peter Overby, a very busy man. Thanks so much.

OVERBY: Thank you.

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