Super-PAC man.

Photographer: Darren McCollester/Getty Images

Jeb Bush Will Keep His Super-PAC in Line

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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There’s plenty of Woe-Is-Us going around, thanks to reports that Jeb Bush is basically going to run his presidential campaign out of a super-PAC. My response? What’s really different about these new-style campaigns is a lot more complicated than PAC haters believe.

Bush and other candidates are taking advantage of supertanker-size loopholes in campaign-finance regulation. Everyone has a super-PAC these days, following innovations by Mitt Romney and Barack Obama in previous campaign cycles.

Direct contributions to candidates are still governed by the old rules established in the 1970s (with various updates since then) that strictly limit individual contributions. For 2016, the cap is $2,700 for the primary and nomination cycle and $2,700 for the general election. 

Super-PAC donations, on the other hand, are unlimited, though they must be disclosed. Super-PACs aren't allowed to coordinate with a candidate's regular campaign. But it isn't clear how much this matters in practice, especially since a trusted lieutenant of the candidate usually heads the super-PAC.

The important thing to look for is whether changing organizational structures enhance or muffle the influence of the candidates themselves as well as that of the parties and interest groups acting outside the parties. 

The National Journal’s reporting (from Tim Alberta and Shane Goldmacher) on the Bush super-PAC suggests that, if anything, taking the campaign away from the direct control of the candidate might strengthen his or her influence. That's because candidates sprinkle people they have a long history with into the super-PAC's leadership roles. 

Frictions may still develop between the candidate and the campaign, in the absence of direct coordination. The chances of that will go down if the staff can anticipate what the candidate is thinking, and knows how he or she talks, and so on. 

Won't parties feel shut out of this tight group? No, because most presidential campaigns have been brought into their party's networks early, and are filled with people who care about its fate.  

Overall, it's unlikely the new sources of money will affect nomination outcomes. I expect funds donated without broader party support to be worth less, so the lone billionaire's deep pockets might not have as much impact as people fear. It’s possible that the new money will redefine the parties and that the new structures will disrupt the way parties have controlled presidential nominations over the last 30 years, but I suspect the parties will adapt as they usually do.  

Mostly, more and more money in the presidential campaigns may just translate into more and more wasted money.

  1. I'm skeptical of the conventional wisdom that outside money lengthened the Republican process in 2012 by allowing Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich to stick around longer. Other factors likely played a bigger role: free media (especially debate coverage for Gingrich and Iowa caucus results for Santorum) along with effective grass-roots campaigns (Santorum in Iowa). There was also a general lack of enthusiasm for Mitt Romney among conservatives. 

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