A variation of this article appeared in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, October 11th, 2015
As fall rolls in, the US primary season is in full swing. And while the general elections are still at least 14 months out (November 2016 to be exact), the political games are already in full swing. The Super PACs (Political Action Committees) are up and running, campaign adverts are on TV and candidates are doing their best to convince their financiers to back them in what seems to be a long and hard battle to the nomination and eventually to the general elections.
The way the system operates in the US is technically simple. Each party goes through a series of primaries/caucuses to elect a candidate that will get the party nomination for the highest office i.e. the Presidency. Party conventions formally anoint the nominee but unofficially by March, the general public traditionally knows who is going to be representing each side.
Hillary Clinton was expected to cruise to a nomination in the Democratic Party up till recently. However in the last few months, the dynamics have changed just enough to make it interesting i.e. Bernie Sanders and Co are leading a leftist insurgency against the center left Clinton. And while the insurgency started out as a joke no one wanted to take seriously, the recent spate of Clinton missteps have exasperated since her email misstep got bungled by her campaign.
But that is not where the action is, it is the Republicans or as they are often referred to, GOP (Grand Old Party) who are having a race for the ages. With over a dozen candidates vying for the nomination, the GOP primary season is full of surprises and blunders that make for great election season TV. From Trump’s hijacking of the media coverage to a failed CEO’s resurrection to a political hero (Carly Fiorina), the GOP Primary is gearing up for a highly entertaining battle 4 months out from the first caucus in Iowa.
Both the Dems and GOP are hoping to spend upwards of 2 Billion Dollars each this election cycle and most of that money is going to come from Super PACs i.e. dark money groups that have no direct connections with political campaigns.
US Elections in the last few years have changed significantly. In 2010 Supreme Court ruled against the Federal Election Commission and allowed for Super PACs to be formed. The ruling stated that corporations were ‘people’ and by that virtue could take part in the electoral process by making campaign contributions. They could do so by making Super PACs that could give unlimited amounts of money to candidates and campaigns as long as they were not coordinating with the candidate or the campaign directly.
To understand how this ruling changes the structure of elections, consider this – A candidate can have unlimited amounts of money spent on their campaign as long as they are not the ones spending the money themselves. They can get their friends or relatives to initiate a Super PAC in their support. That Super PAC can raise unlimited amounts of money without having to file who their donors are. That Super PAC can then spend money in support of the candidate doing whatever they need to i.e. running negative campaign adverts and funding grass roots campaign against competitors while allowing the candidate to deny they had any role to play in doing so as they are not ‘coordinating’ with the Super PAC.
The problem with running elections like this is that candidates are scrambling to find donors to back their campaigns instead of trying to attract voters. As this is a long haul battle, a candidate needs to money to go the distance. If the money runs out without the first vote even being cast, a candidate has no option but to drop out of the race as the former Governor of Texas, Gov. Perry had to do recently. It also means that fringe candidates who have no real mass appeal can stay in the race and make issues central to the campaign as long as they have the money to go the distance. Senator Cruz of Texas is one such example. Being backed by a Super PAC funded by a Billionaire supporter of his, Senator Cruz has no hope of winning the general election given his fringe Tea Party beliefs. But by staying in the race long enough, he has made issues like Conservative Values, Family Values and Immigration as major issues in the primary rhetoric.
But what is really interesting is between the 4 Republican Super donors i.e. Adelson, Koch Brothers, Mercer & Freiss, there is upwards of 200 Million Dollars up for grabs for any one campaign. In essence, as the primary season and proceeding general election season is a money war, the billionaire backed Super PACs are choosing the candidates and effectively buying as much of the election as they can. And this is what outsiders do not fully comprehend about the US Election process. For instance, Adelson single handedly bankrolled Benjamin Netanyahu’s election campaigns in Israel and has made it mandatory for all GOP hopefuls to adopt a strong pro-Israeli posture if they are to get any money from him. Similarly, Freiss has backed strong evangelical values to the point where other religions were seen as a threat to the American way of life. He did so through the rhetoric Rick Santorum pushed throughout the 2012 election cycle.
The point is, the corporations, billionaires and interest group backed Super PACs control the discussion and rhetoric throughout the election process. For outsiders it seems the US government takes decisions on its own but in nearly all instances, the final decisions are merely culmination of intricate ground work laid out through Super PACs and Lobbyists from an early stage like the primary elections. Consider this, the Iran Deal that the Democratic President Obama has secured after years of negotiations would be thrown out day 1 if an Adelson backed GOP candidate was to get elected.
While the world see the circus that is primary election process and enjoys the Trump show, the reality is behind this façade, the billionaires and special interest groups are already doing the groundwork to potentially buy the next Presidency, Senate and the House leadership. The policy choices for the next 4 to 6 years are already being made now while the world enjoys the smoke screen of a gaudy reality show this primary process has become.