Whose Money? SuperPACs To Reveal Records

Residents of Illinois and Louisiana this week have been bombarded by TV ads attacking one or another presidential candidate, the vast majority of them funded by superPACs, groups that run TV ads like a regular candidate's campaign, but legally have nothing to do with the candidate they support. Tuesday night, they must file a report detailing who gave them money and how they spent it. Host Rachel Martin talks with NPR's S.V. Dáte.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The GOP will hold its primaries in Illinois and Louisiana this week. So maybe it's no surprise that residences there are being bombarded by political attack ads, the vast majority of them ending with phrases like this:

(SOUNDBITE OF A POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Restore Our Future is responsible for the content of this message.

MARTIN: Welcome to the brave new world of presidential superPACs, groups that seem like they're part of the candidate's campaign, but legally have nothing to do with the candidate they support. This Tuesday night, we'll get a new look at these groups. At midnight, they have to file a report with the Federal Election Commission detailing who gave them money and how they spent it.

Joining me now is NPR's S.V. Date, who's been closely following all issues of campaign finance this election season. Thanks for being with us.

S.V. DATE, BYLINE: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: First, can you explain how integral these superPACs have become to this presidential race?

DATE: Actually in this presidential race, the superPACs have pretty much become the race. They have taking on the most expensive functions of a traditional campaign. They're doing pretty much most of the television advertising. They're doing the direct mail. They're doing those robocalls that you get just before an election.

In fact, in the month leading up to Mississippi and Alabama last week, we found that the superPACs supporting the candidates spent just over four million dollars. The traditional campaigns spent $200,000. You know, that's a 20-to-1 ratio. And so far, we're seeing the same trend continuing into Illinois and Louisiana.

MARTIN: So are there any links between the campaigns and these superPACs?

DATE: There are no official links. And both the candidates and the superPACs go to great lengths to point this out to you.

MARTIN: How about unofficial links?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DATE: Unofficially, there seem to be a lot of people working for the superPACs who just happen to have previously worked for the candidates.

MARTIN: Besides being able to shell out a lot of cash to pay for the big-ticket items in campaigns like TV ads, what are the other benefits of using a superPAC for an individual campaign?

DATE: Right. A superPAC can accept donations of any size and they can take money from corporations. If you're a traditional campaign, you can only accept donations of up to $2,500 and corporate money isn't allowed. So, say you're a candidate and you need a million dollars in a hurry. You can make one phone call to a very rich friend and get your million dollars, and your problem solved.

Or you can make 400 phone calls until you get enough donations to get you to a million at the $2,500 level. Now, which is faster and easier? In fact, we found two dozen such donors who have given at least a million dollars and we are going to start profiling them at NPR in the coming week.

MARTIN: Campaigns, through superPACs, can fundraise huge amounts of money from a smaller pool of donors. Is that always a good thing for campaigns?

DATE: It's a good thing when you need money in a hurry. It's may be not such a good thing when you're trying to build a support base all across the country. We found that the Republican front-runner right now, Mitt Romney, has done somewhat poorly in getting small donors compared to even his other Republicans rivals. And we know that President Obama made a big effort to get small donors, and it paid off for him when it came time to get some enthusiasm at the polls in 2008.

MARTIN: Because small donors have more of an emotional connection. They actually show up more often?

DATE: Folks who give a small amount of money, they feel like they're part of the campaign. They want to bring their friends to the polls, et cetera. And you've got millions of people who are doing that that makes a difference.

MARTIN: Here we are in mid-March. The GOP primary has lasted far longer than many thought it would. Are superPACs in part responsible for this?

DATE: They may well be partly responsible. It may be that had the superPACs supporting Mr. Romney's opponents not been there, his opponents would have faded away awhile ago. Or it may be that had Mr. Romney's superPAC not been there, his opponents might have been able to catch fire and roll on towards the nomination themselves.

One thing we do know is responsible is the Republican National Committee's rule change in 2010. They wanted a longer primary season. They did not want a repeat of 2008, when John McCain wrapped things up in February, before most Republican voters really had a chance to look at the alternatives.

Now this time around, voters in states way beyond the traditional early states of Iowa and New Hampshire, they've had a chance to have their votes actually count for something.

MARTIN: That's NPR's S.V. Date. And NPR series on million-dollar donors begins this week on MORNING EDITION.

S.V., thanks so much for talking with us.

DATE: You're very welcome.

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