Super PACs engage in more positive than negative messaging

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  • Super PACs have less influence than we think, and they actually engage in more positive than negative messaging

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  • In 2010, candidates and parties, not super PACs, paid for 85% of ads run for Senate election ads and 88% of House ads

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  • According to the FEC, $9.6 million has been spent on positive ads in the 2012 race, compared to $5 million on negative ads

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There has been much handwringing in recent weeks about super PACs and their potential to doom the American political system. As the argument goes, super PACs mean that corporations or wealthy individuals can make unlimited contributions to groups that are thinly-veiled surrogates for candidates, enabling the candidates to stay positive while the PACs function as attack dogs."Evidence suggests these super PACs have less influence than we think, and they actually engage in more positive than negative messaging." -Jennifer K. Marsico

Trouble is, this argument isn't true. In fact, the evidence suggests these super PACs have less influence than we think, and they actually engage in more positive than negative messaging.

In early 2011, the Wesleyan Media Project released a report on the spending of outside groups in the 2010 election—the first since the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling that opened the door for the creation of super PACs. The report found that in 2010, candidates and parties, not super PACS, paid for 85 percent of all ads run for Senate races and 88 percent of ads for House races. Therefore, PAC spending made up a small part of the money spent in 2010; traditional forms of funding still dominated.

Results from this year's Iowa caucuses also indicate that a candidate's performance is not directly tied to super PAC spending. Even though Rick Santorum virtually tied Mitt Romney for the win in Iowa, the "Red White and Blue Fund," which supports Santorum, spent just $537,200 in the state. By comparison, the Romney-supporting "Restore Our Future" super PAC spent $3.4 million in Iowa.

Then just this week, the Wall Street Journal reported that contrary to the belief that super PACs primarily exist to do a candidate's dirty work, FEC reports show that super PACs have spent more this year on ads supporting their chosen candidates than ads attacking other candidates. According to the FEC, since the campaign began, $9.6 million has been spent on positive ads, compared to $5 million on negative ads.

The belief that super PACs are hurting U.S. politics stems from one of two arguments: 1.) super PACs have too great an influence on elections, and 2.) the vast majority of their activity is devoted to negative campaigning. But evidence from both 2010 and 2012 shows that neither argument is correct.

Jennifer Marsico is a senior research associate at AEI

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