Media Watch: The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette doesn’t understand what ‘anti-democratic’ means

In a recent editorial in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Editorial Board opines that “big money looms larger in the 2016 campaign.” This sounds like a title for your run-of-the-mill “reformer” screed these days, but it’s worse than that. The PG’s Editorial Board not only makes completely outlandish – and unfounded – claims about campaign spending, but it also fundamentally misunderstands how Super PACs actually work.

The first claim the Editorial Board makes is one of mere mathematical guess work. The Board claims that “[n]ext year’s presidential contest is expected to cost up to $5 billion – more than twice that of the 2012 campaign.”

With the presidential election cycle still ramping up, this claim is very premature. Not only is it too early – the election is 441 days away as of today – but there seems to be no rhyme or reason as to how they came to this conclusion. Rather, it seems that the Editorial Board pulled this claim out of thin air.

Most likely, the $5 billion estimate is a projection based on how much spending there was at this point in the last presidential campaign. Such a simplistic approach assumes that every election cycle proceeds in the same manner, which is obviously false. For starters, only one party had a primary in 2012, whereas both have primaries in 2016. Furthermore, the Republican field alone boasts many more viable candidates than it did in the last presidential election cycle. In short, early spending from over a dozen candidates tells us very little about what things will look like once the nominees have been chosen, and certainly not enough to gaze into a crystal ball and boldly proclaim the final spending figures for the entire 2016 cycle.

To add insult to injury, the Board’s next claim about spending by candidates and Super PACs is a real doozy. The Editorial Board declares that “Presidential candidates collected $400 million in contributions in the first half of this year, most of it from super-political action committees that can raise unlimited sums, according to a New York Times analysis.”

This claim is patently false. Presidential candidates – and congressional candidates, for that matter – are prohibited by law from accepting even a penny from Super PACs. Indeed, Super PACs are able to accept unlimited contributions precisely because that money cannot be donated to candidates.

The effects of the legal distinction between candidates and Super PACs are very real. If Super PAC money could be used by candidates, then Rick Perry would not be in dire straits in attempts to pay his campaign staff. All he would need is a donation from a supportive Super PAC. After all, the Super PAC(s) independently supporting Perry’s candidacy have raised drastically more money than his campaign. Surely, those groups would help Perry if they could.

But they can’t. Super PACs are legally barred from coordinating with candidates’ campaigns and thus, candidates must rely on the funding available to their campaign (collected in maximum increments of $2,700 from individuals) to pay their staff, air ads, and pick up the tab for events featuring the candidate.

Like Perry, early signs indicate that Jeb Bush’s campaign is experiencing somewhat similar trouble. In a recent New York Times article, Maggie Haberman describes the steps the candidate has taken to save money for his campaign. Haberman writes that “Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign has asked various divisions to be mindful of their spending, in a reminder that despite his giant ‘super PAC’ bankroll, campaign dollars are ultimately more valuable.”

The Post-Gazette’s Editorial Board is wrong on the law and wrong on the facts. Sadly, they aren’t alone. Efforts by self-styled “reformers” to convince the public that campaign finance regulation is in a state of crisis have led to a wide array of misconceptions about how money in politics, and the laws that regulate it, actually work. That’s why CCP works to educate lawmakers and the public and push back against these all-too-common misstatements. In reality, the “anti-democratic status quo” the Post-Gazette should fear is not citizens contributing money to groups and candidates they support, but those who push for restrictions on our First Amendment right to speak and associate freely.

The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.