It’s somewhat amazing that the media, and even the Republicans, have failed to comment on what might be the real significance of the Obama campaign’s reversal on the use of a super PAC. When the campaign began many months ago, Obama’s advisers seemed reasonably confident that his campaign would be well funded, some suggesting that he could have the first billion dollar war chest.
Recently, however, the campaign has walked back that idea, suggesting that while he was doing very well in his fundraising efforts, a billion-dollar campaign was never on their screen. The early numbers, indeed, show him doing better than he did at this stage in 2007. But that has to be expected. He is now a sitting president; in 2007, he was just a new face running an uphill campaign against a heavy favorite.
However, the decision to endorse a super PAC may suggest that the Obama campaign’s money problems are more serious than anyone had thought. In 2008, Obama raised almost $800 million, a record. If he were able to do just as well this year, he wouldn’t need a super PAC, but apparently his advisers have recognized that he will fall well short of the 2008 total.
The news reports on this reversal have focused on whether this was a hypocritical move, some showing the president scolding the Supreme Court about the Citizens United decision in his 2010 State of the Union address. On the other hand, the Obama campaign has defended the decision by saying that, given all the money being raised by Republican super PACs, Obama could not afford to enter this battle less than fully armed.
Both of these reports may be obscuring the real news—that by endorsing a super PAC, the Obama campaign may be acknowledging serious funding problems. This is because a super PAC must remain completely independent of the candidate it is supporting and thus cannot be relied on to project the consistent and integrated message that a modern campaign requires, or to run ads in the places and on the issues that a candidate may need to shore up his or her support.
Despite the attention they have received in the media, super PACs are not always helpful to well-run campaigns and can seriously compromise campaign strategies and tactics.
For example, let’s suppose that the Obama campaign’s internal polling shows that he is losing support in, say, the Midwest, and that the reason is a shift away from Obama by Catholic women. This information cannot legally be transmitted to the super PAC, so it is unable to provide assistance where it is really necessary. Even more important, a super PAC can do affirmative harm to the campaign it is supporting. Let’s assume that the Obama campaign uses its own funds to develop and run a soft-focus ad that shows him speaking earnestly about his concern for the future of parochial school education, a tack that is designed to appeal to middle class Catholic women. However, at the same time and in the same states, the super PAC runs an ad criticizing the Republican candidate for opposing abortion—an appeal to young single women. The appeal to Catholic women will be compromised or even vitiated by the message in the super PAC ad.
Thus, to rely on a super PAC is not an easy decision for a campaign, entailing benefits and risks. It doesn’t mean that the Obama campaign is girding for a fight; it may just as well mean that the Obama campaign is facing unexpectedly serious funding problems.