Second Fiddles, in a Tribute to Buckley

April 10, 2015
posted by Bob Bauer

There has been news of an original structure for Super PAC activities, and it has scrambled assumptions about how these entities might be organized and function. The coordination debate to this point has been all about candidate control or influence.  In the different arrangement coming to light, the donors behind the PACs are striving for control.  A source tells Bloomberg Politics: “Donors used to be in the category of ‘write a check and go away’ while the operatives called all the shots. Donors don’t want to play second fiddle anymore.”

It appears that the notion now is for the donors to play multiple fiddles.  Funders would put together several PACs committed to the same candidacy, each such committee to be operated for discrete purposes.  One PAC would fund TV ads, another would handle social media, and additional committees would attend to any number of other tasks, including data mining, voter turnout, or volunteer recruitment.  David Keating has suggested that this network would also enable each funder to have the consultants of her choice, or spotlight within her PAC’s communications the issues she most cares about.

In a a twist, this complex structure may breathe a little life into the Buckley thesis that independent spending is a risk to the candidate who cannot be sure she will like how this campaign on her behalf is conducted.  The Court concluded that because the expenditures might be only marginally valuable to the candidate or could backfire, they had “substantially diminished potential” for corruption and could not be limited.  424 U.S. 1, 47.  Critics concerned about “coordination” have dismissed this likelihood, arguing that candidates find ways to exert enough control or influence to extract ample returns from independent activity.

But an intricate Super PAC operation that aspires to more than straightforward “messaging,” and that is run by donors intending to call their own shots, seem to raise the odds that something from the candidate’s perspective could go wrong.  It is one thing for an IE operation to supplement and reinforce TV advertising, but something quite different if it becomes a parallel campaign organization that regularly crosses the candidate’s path on the air, the Internet and the ground—and can get in the way.  There is still more risk where the funders undertaking these activities have concluded that they (or their consultants) can run the better, winning campaign.  Low-efficiency ads can be a distraction, but the candidate may well take what she can get.  But there is greater danger to her operational and strategic interests if she has to run a campaign alongside and not always in step with a doppelgänger.

This possibility only goes so far to rehabilitate the Buckley perspective. But it could be a problem for a candidate if she has to worry that she is the one playing second fiddle.

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