American Election: The Rise of the SuperPACS

American politics is a dangerous game. With so much at stake leading up to November’s presidential election, mudslinging from both sides was to be expected – however, the scale of personal attacks leveled by President Barack Obama’s campaign at Senator Mitt Romney was not. In fact, this sobering turn directly contradicts Obama’s public stance on negative campaigning.

Back in 2008, Obama announced that he did not want to run a smear campaign against his opponent, “maverick” John McCain. As a young man working in social programs in Chicago, Illinois, he had already felt the effect of lacklustre social policy in declining inner cities. However, the man hours spent on negative advertising campaigns in the past 18 months shows the extent to which he’s abandoned his roots. Stateside rags, such as the Huffington Post, accuse Obama of having his fair share of negative ad campaigning in 2008. Nevertheless, his stance both publically and privately suggests otherwise.

Political analysts Mark Halperin and John Heilemann profiled both the Obama vs. Clinton Republican candidate campaigns leading up to the 2008 elections and noted that Obama was clear with his campaign team (including David Axelrod, who has this year defended Democratic negative campaigning) that he wanted Democrats to see why he was worth voting for, rather than showing that Hillary Clinton was not. In an interview, Obama posed the question, “Do we want to have the same old attack politics we’ve become accustomed to?” and concluded that his campaign team were “going to keep it positive”.

How the tides have changed. This time around, Obama’s team have rolled up their sleeves and plunged elbow deep into political filth – as has Romney. The source of this spike is the newfound millions rolling in from Super PACs (Political Action Committees), who after a 2010 Supreme Court ruling cannot give money to candidates or campaigns, but can spend unlimited sums on politics autonomously. Industry analysts predict that upwards of $3billion will be spent on political advertising this year alone.

Obama and his top three outside support groups, including Super PACs, have spent more than $54 million on negative advertising campaigns in 2012. This pales in comparison to Romney and his top supporters, however, who have invested a staggering $110 million.

These figures demonstrate that the GOP candidate is no innocent when it comes to slating the reputation of his opponent. However, it is worth noting most of his attacks on Obama have centred on his political decisions, such as ObamaCare, or express traditional concerns that the Democrats are sliding towards a European- style welfare state. Conversely, the Obama campaign has been considerably more personal, with attacks on Romney’s own tax record, his Mormon faith and more.

Still, compared to Obama’s current tack, the Super PACs’ unofficial negative ad campaigns are by far the dirtiest. The furore over Obama’s birth certificate, for instance, was fuelled by Republican SuperPACs. As for the Democrats, one advertisement (below) showed a former Missouri steelworker, Joe Soptic, who claimed his wife died of cancer just 22 days after Romney acquired the factory that offered health insurance to its workers and families, laying off a section of its staff. This allegation was later shown to be inaccurate and misleading.

The group responsible for the advertisement, Priorities USA Action, a Democratic SuperPAC, was not officially endorsed by Obama or his campaign. Furthermore, last month, two of Obama’s inner circle publically stated that they knew nothing about Soptic. However, critics say this lack of knowledge would have been impossible – and the Democratic cause took an enormous hit after CNN  revealed that Soptic lost his job with Bain Capital five years before his wife was diagnosed. Obama’s team has produced evidence to show they did not endorse the ad, but refuse to discredit it.

This sort of approach highlights the weak-spots in the Obama campaign. Contrast the Democratic commitment to universal health insurance against the gender equality threatened by Romney’s attack on Planned Parenthood and the Democrats certainly have the moral edge with their agenda. It is an error to sacrifice this with their underhanded campaign approach. Paul Harris, U.S. correspondent for the Guardian and the Observer, writes, “Despite efforts by [the Democrats] to show Obama as caring about ordinary Americans, just 3% of press coverage reflected this assertion”, adding that the 2012 campaign has been “one of the most negative electoral contests in recent memory.”

Negative advertising, such the Joe Soptic fiasco, also undermines the scraps of integrity that American politics clings on to. This summer, I was a Fellow for Organizing for America, Obama’s grassroots team, in North Virginia. Time and again I had the same conversation with voters. Many felt that this year they are faced with a Hobson’s choice: Obama’s healthcare act and economic stimulus packages have disappointed – but they identify with the Democratic cause of a basic social safety net. Similarly, they expressed serious concerns over Mitt Romney’s policies towards female healthcare and his willingness to court the Republican extreme right in the form of the Tea Party.

Obama won in 2008 by getting swathes of those overlooked in previous campaigns out to vote: students and ethnic minorities. He created enthusiasm at rallies and seemed to embody change within the nepotistic, lobbyist paved roads of Washington. Yet as the incumbent, it was inevitable that Obama would struggle to retain this godlike status.

His latest troubles are unlikely to signal the end of his career, however. Although Obama’s plan rejected a publicly funded health insurance option in order to appease the insurance companies, it is a step in the right direction. Romney’s healthcare model he introduced while Governor of Massachusetts is also recognised as a financially viable option. Still, his promise to repeal ObamaCare and start from scratch is regressive political posturing.

Moreover, Romney’s appointment of Paul Ryan as his running mate is frankly terrifying. If the controversial bill Ryan helped introduce into the Senate (which would enshrine in law that life is created at fertilisation) is not thrown out, U.S. citizens could be prevented from having access to IVF treatments. What’s more, the Republican ticket’s stance on reducing funding for Planned Parenthood is not the isolated attack on abortion it masquerades as – it would eliminate essential services that so many women rely on, including antenatal care and access to contraception.

This is not a Hobson’s choice. Obama’s second term could be the opportunity for him to further his economic stimulus packages and some of his promises from 2008. The recent wave of negative campaigning has been successful in undermining their opponent – but the Democrats are now in danger of simultaneously sacrificing the President’s own integrity. If stateside politics wishes to avoid farce, these negative campaigns need to be scaled back.


Michelle Cathcart 


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