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A Family Guide to Super PACs
Posted on February 7, 2012 by Adam Bean

For most of 2012, the upcoming presidential election will take center stage in the news. During the ongoing Republican primary, one highlight has been the rising influence of the Super PAC, which is essentially a political action committee (PAC) on steroids. PACs are private groups of citizens that are organized to help elect a candidate or advance a political cause.


In January, Republican Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign received two separate Super PAC injections totaling $10 million from one couple, Mr. and Mrs. Sheldon Adelson. This raised questions about the influence Super PACs may have on candidates and their agendas. Even comedian Stephen Colbert now has a Super PAC, though he started his as a way to protest their existence and increasing influence.


Politics might not normally excite your kids, but this presidential election provides a great opportunity to talk to your little ones about the big issues that everyone will be discussing. Most certainly, one of those issues is the recent emergence of the Super PAC. Therefore, we put together a guide to help your kids understand them.


First, a quick history lesson. Garden-variety PACs have existed since 1944, when the Congress of Industrial Organizations (otherwise known as the CIO, eventually of AFL-CIO fame) created the first PAC to help re-elect President Franklin D. Roosevelt. But by law, PACs for years were forced to keep relatively low dollar limits. Then in 2010, two judicial decisions made it legal for individuals, unions, and corporations to contribute any amount they chose to a PAC as long as the PAC disclosed its donors, and the PAC didn’t directly give to or coordinate with candidates or political parties.


That’s how the Super PAC was born.


As of Feb. 5, 2012, the 313 Super PACs operating in this country had spent more than $46 million in the 2012 election cycle, according to the political website Experts estimate that Super PACs will push campaign spending to an astounding $2 billion by the time we choose our president in November. Compare this to a total of $69 million spent just 12 years ago during the contentious Bush-Gore election.


When your kids hear this, they might think:

  1. That sounds like a lot of money.
  2. I don’t understand politics.
  3. Besides, I don’t care about politics.
  4. All of the above!


That’s understandable. To make this topic more fun and easier for your kids to understand, we offer some actual pros and cons of the Super PAC phenomenon, and then take it a step further. We’ll illustrate how Super PACs might affect a campaign for school president between football star Jason Johnson and rich-girl Megan Smith.


A “pro” argument for Super PACs: They allow worthy candidates who run out of money to keep campaigning. Before Super PACs, once a candidate ran out of money, his or her candidacy was seriously compromised and/or the candidate had to bow out of the race.
School analogy: Isn’t it unfair when football star and class president candidate Jason Johnson runs out of money for campaign materials, while his rich-girl opponent Megan Smith has lots of cash to spend on things such as campaign videos for her website, Twitter, and Facebook page?


A “con” for Super PACs: They can invite corruption because the big spenders who contribute to them will want a piece of the action from the candidate once he or she is elected.
School analogy: Jason’s classmate Simon ends up paying for several campaign videos that Jason couldn’t afford. If Jason wins, he will owe Simon favors, right? Or at least he will have to be very nice to him!


Pro: Super PACs are helping to shatter the old established political order, which had the same entrenched big-money and special-interest groups influencing the same issues, political parties, and candidates year after year. In this sense, Super PACs will inject much-needed new blood into the political process.
School analogy: Given that Jason and his family have struggled financially for years, he would never have been able to successfully run for class president without the financial help of his friends. Jason offered a new and different perspective on what needed to be done. What’s more, his friends had never been part of a school election and were happy to be involved.


Con: Super PACs make it more likely that negative “attack” ads will air, because a candidate doesn’t have to be accountable for them. So he or she gets the benefit of the ad without the worry of being “dirtied” by it.
School analogy: Megan’s friend pays for a video ad and posts it on YouTube. The ad accuses Jason of being big and stupid and not qualified to be class president. Megan can simply say that she had nothing to do with the ad. Meanwhile, she benefits from it because students begin to think that Jason is big and stupid.


Pro: Super PACs create more political speech. This gives voters more to go on so they can make a more informed choice.
School analogy: Because of all the election publicity, students are hearing and seeing so much more about their school president candidates than in previous years. This time, everyone is really into it. Students are even debating the plusses and minuses of the two candidates before and after school, and during lunch.


Con: Super PACs make it tougher for voters to be heard. Unfortunately, this was already happening before the rise of Super PACs thanks to big-money campaign donors and special-interest groups relentlessly peddling their influence.
School analogy: Students have issues that are important to them, like phys ed and music classes being cut from the curriculum, school lunch prices going up, and the school dress code getting so strict you can’t even wear short shorts or hats anymore. But the election posters and ads produced by the rich kids this year don’t talk about any of those things. Many students think the ads are more about the people paying for them, rather than what’s important to them.


Regardless of your political views, it’s good to present both sides of the story so kids can think about the issues and figure out what’s important to them. Here are a few discussion questions to keep the conversation going about Super PACs:

  1. If you had a huge amount of money to spend on an election, would you contribute to a candidate directly or to a Super PAC that supports that candidate? Remember that in the former instance you can only contribute $5,000 dollars, whereas with a Super PAC you can contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars and possibly make more of a difference.
  2. Do you think negative ads (that are paid for by Super PACs) are a good way for candidates to get their message to voters? Why?
  3. Do you think Super PACs are a good thing or a bad thing for our political system, and why?
  4. If you were the one who had to decide if Super PACs were legal or illegal, which would you choose and why?