Wednesday, June 8, 2016

This is our second blog post in our new Politics in Pop Culture series, where we’ll critique Hollywood’s take on politics and campaign finance. Have a tip, question, or suggestion for a future post? Let us know @GoberGroup

This blog post was written by Karen Blackistone Oaks, a partner with The Gober Group. She specializes in advising clients that are engaged in multi-faceted, multi-million dollar policy campaigns that incorporate a wide range of advocacy strategies.

The 2016 presidential campaign has already proven to be an embarrassment of riches for comedy writers. It is also providing a lot of fodder for Shonda Rhimes and her Thursday night show on ABC, Scandal.

As Scandal viewers know, the show has featured three candidates for the Republican nomination – Susan Ross, Mellie Grant, and the Trump-inspired Hollis Doyle. During a recent episode entitled “Trump Card,” the fight for the fictional Republican nomination came to a close as Susan Ross dropped out of the race and Mellie Grant was the last candidate left standing.

As that episode was approaching its conclusion, Ms. Ross was preparing to step up to the podium and announce her withdrawal and endorsement of Ms. Grant while a newscaster recapped the situation for the viewers, saying: “She attributed the decision [to drop out] to a vastly diminished war chest, a result of her refusal to court soft money donors.”

Like many other Hollywood plotlines, the reasoning for Ms. Ross’s decision to drop out of the race diverges from reality in a couple of key aspects.

As Scandal suggests, a vastly diminished war chest is certainly a reason that a lot of candidates drop out of a presidential primary. If you don’t have the money to pay staff, operate a campaign office, travel to the various battleground states and put on campaign rallies, and do all of the organizing and politicking that go into a campaign, there’s no path forward for your candidacy. In other words, these are all signs that it’s time for a candidate to drop out of the race.

But the first mistake that Scandal makes is failing to understand that Super PACs and tax-exempt organizations, funded by “soft money,” are not part of the candidate’s “war chest.” The candidate cannot direct a Super PAC’s spending, and the Super PAC cannot pay the salaries of campaign staffers, pay the rent on the campaign’s office, or pay for the candidate’s travel. Of course they can do a lot to support the candidate, but the reality is that there is a ceiling on their usefulness because they cannot coordinate any of this activity directly with the campaign. That’s a big distinction and important realization.

The second mistake that Scandal makes is their apparent misunderstanding of “soft money.” “Soft money” was a term used to refer to funds raised by political parties – the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee, for example – to fund “party building” activities. This spending could include conducting voter registration drives, educating voters about the policy positions of the party, or any activity not directly tied to a candidate. “Soft money” was banned in 2002 as part of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (commonly referred to as “McCain-Feingold”).

Today, the terms “soft money” and the more ominous “dark money” are liberally thrown around to describe contributions made to Super PACs or to tax-exempt organizations that engage in some political activity. There are similarities between soft money of yore and contributions to Super PACs or tax-exempt organizations, but it is helpful to understand the history of the term “soft money” and to understand the nuanced differences between the types of contributions.

It is also important to understand that, although a candidate can essentially “court” donors who contribute to Super PACs, they cannot solicit or accept contributions from individuals to Super PACs over $5,000 (and they are outright prohibited from soliciting contributions from corporations to Super PACs).

And it would be remiss not to point out that a well-funded Super PAC does not guarantee a candidate’s electoral success or defeat: just ask Jeb Bush and Donald Trump. All the Super PAC spending in the world couldn’t save Mr. Bush’s campaign, and a bunch of it that poured into race during March and April couldn’t take out Mr. Trump’s. So while the real body politic has learned first-hand that Super PACs (and “soft money”) cannot displace real campaign operations, it appears that we’ll have to be more patient with Hollywood as it catches up to that reality.