Articles

Super-PAC Strategies For 2016 Success

March 25, 2015

By using Twitter to announce his entry into the 2016 Republican presidential race, Sen. Ted Cruz signaled just how pervasive social media will be this election. Two other trends are worth watching. There will be a greater reliance on data and technology in organizing, communicating and measuring the effectiveness of campaign activity—and every presidential candidate will have a Super PAC.

The $2,700 a person contribution limit to a candidate’s campaign for the primary season means donors who are able will donate larger amounts to the Super PAC supporting their favorite candidate.

The 2012 experience is instructive. From its start in 2011 through the end of the primaries in June 2012, Mitt Romney’s campaign raised $113.8 million and spent $103.9 million, according to Federal Election Commission filings. Meanwhile, the Super PAC supporting him—“Restore Our Future”—raised $61.5 million and spent $53.7 million.

During the same time, Newt Gingrich’s campaign raised $23.6 million and spent $23.6 million, and his Super PAC—“Winning Our Future”—raised and spent $23.9 million. Rick Santorum’s campaign raised $22.4 million and spent $22.2 million while his “Red, White and Blue” PAC raised $8.5 million and spent $8.4 million.

Looking deeper into each group’s spending reveals even more dramatic numbers. During the primaries Mr. Romney’s campaign spent at least $24 million on media, according to FEC reports, roughly 23% of its spending. In the same period his “Restore Our Future” Super PAC spent $39.6 million (74% of its outlays) on media.

The pattern was the same for Mr. Romney’s principal opponents. The Gingrich campaign spent around $4.3 million, or 18%, on media. But the pro-Gingrich “Winning Our Future” Super PAC spent $6.7 million on media, nearly 30% of its spending.

Mr. Santorum’s campaign spent 35% of its funds—$7.8 million—on media, according to OpenSecrets.org’s aggregation of FEC reports. At the same time, his “Red, White and Blue” Super PAC laid out $4.9 million to media firms, 58% of its spending.

This means the Super PACs for Messrs. Romney and Gingrich spent more money on ads than did their campaigns—and all three Super PACs spent a greater share of what they raised on messaging than did the campaigns themselves. All of which suggests having a Super PAC—and running it right—could make a huge difference in amplifying a candidate’s message in 2016.

The reason Super PACs spend more on media and less on everything else is because they don’t need to do everything else. They don’t have to transport the candidate, stage big rallies, deal with dozens of reporters on a daily basis or build and operate a nationwide grass-roots organization. In addition, fundraising is less expensive because it involves bigger gifts and relies on peer-to-peer solicitation rather than costly Internet, phone and mail solicitations.

But having a Super PAC is not the same as having a good one. It must be structured properly. Getting this right is critical because federal law prohibits “coordination” and private communication between the campaign of an announced candidate and any Super PAC. The two entities must watch each other’s actions and public statements to figure out where each of them is going. 

A well-organized Super PAC will put advocates for the candidate in charge, not consultants. People in whom the candidate and other donors have implicit trust should constitute a volunteer board that oversees the PAC, hires staff, engages vendors, sets compensation, and approves the budget and strategy and materialchanges in either.

Increasingly sophisticated, Super PAC donors pay attention to overhead and consultant compensation. Fundraisers should get a retainer, not a percentage of what they raise: Donors hate paying commissions on their gifts. Fees for vendors doing the group’s work should be transparent to donors and set at a reasonable low level to maximize dollars spent on activity.

It is also wise to hire someone with sharp political skills to oversee the work of PAC vendors. The consultants doing the message work should not approve their own product. They will always think they have done a great job. Having someone above them to challenge their thinking and push for necessary improvements is critical.

Finally, to help avoid scandals, the Super PAC should institute tight financial controls, have its actions reviewed and monitored by knowledgeable legal counsel, and undergo an audit afterward.

If this sounds like a lot, it is. But experienced donors understand a well-run Super PAC is a vital way to supercharge their favorite candidate’s effort. In 2016, the Super PAC may spell the difference between victory and defeat.

A version of this article appeared March 26, 2015, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline Super-PAC Strategies For 2016 Success and online at WSJ.com.

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