When we speculated last fall that a campaign run by political action committees was on the horizon -- an electoral system that operates completely separately from the candidate -- it seemed a bit like political science fiction, a rise-of-the-robots future to contemplate.
Well, the robots are here.
Jeb Bush's imminent presidential campaign is expected to outsource a great deal of its campaign efforts to Right to Rise PAC, according to the Associated Press. The report, which cites several unnamed confidantes of the Bush organization, outlines how Right to Rise will function as Bush's campaign exoskeleton. It will reportedly run television spots and direct mail, and may also operate the campaign's field program -- that is, voter contact -- up to and including Bush's get-out-the-vote efforts.
There are enormous advantages to a strategy like this, and only one real -- if significant -- downside. The advantages:
- The PAC can raise much more money than the candidate. Federal campaign contribution limits apply only to Bush, not Right to Rise. Donors can only give Bush $2,700, maximum per primary and general election. They can give Right to Rise as much as their little hearts desire.
- The PAC can coordinate with other PACs. Right to Rise can share information and strategy with any other PAC that might want to weigh in on behalf of Bush. Let's say he gets the endorsement of the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity. Once we clear the skies of flying pigs, AFP and Right to Rise could work together to figure out where to send AFP's battalions of grass-roots volunteers or how to divvy up spending on mail. They can do this now, of course, but usually PACs are working to compliment a campaign structure, not to compose it.
- Right to Rise can have Bush help fundraise. In March, the Post's Matea Gold wrote about the rise of PACs in political campaigns, noting that candidates can still appear at fundraisers for affiliated PACs, although they can't ask for more than $5,000.
- It frees up Bush to spend a lot less time on the exhausting process of raising money. That said, Bush will have to spend far less time trying to raise money into his own campaign. He'll need some, of course -- he needs to travel and so on -- but far less than if he were also buying TV spots and running scores of field offices and so on.
And that one downside? Bush can't coordinate with Right to Rise. At all. Once Bush is a candidate, he and Right to Rise cannot strategize about what each is doing. Right to Rise could put out a mail piece making an argument that Bush objects to, in theory, and Bush can't prevent that from happening. Of course, it will help that, as the National Journal reports, a top Bush strategist appears to be moving over to Right to Rise.
This downside, by the way, is replete with loopholes. The boundaries of what counts as coordination are constantly being tested by campaigns and by PACs. You might remember Mitch McConnell releasing that weird footage of himself in various campaign-friendly locales; that was so PACs had B-roll footage of him for their ads. Or maybe you remember the Republican strategy to share poll numbers by posting cryptic tweets -- an effort to get around the stipulation that poll numbers not be shared between campaign organizations and PACs unless the numbers are made public.
There's also the loophole that Bush can't coordinate with Right to Rise once he's a candidate. Right now, while he's still "deciding" whether he'll run, he can talk to Right to Rise all he wants. It's only once he makes his official declaration that the (gauzy) wall goes up. So right now, Bush and the PAC could be talking about, oh, having the PAC run TV and what the messages will be and so on -- the toplines of which are exactly what the AP reported.
A campaign like this was an eventuality. In 2004, five campaigns were outspent by outside groups. In 2012, 32 were. In 2014, 28 campaigns were outspent by outside groups -- to the tune of $216.5 million dollars, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In most cases, that spending has been single-issue organizations trying to secure victory for a candidate who passed their litmus test. But, as in the Republican Senate primary in Mississippi last year, they've also worked together, sharing information, data and strategies.
"This isn't the product of some genius thinking," one of the AP's insiders said. "This is the natural progression of the rules as they are set out by the FEC." Which is correct. The FEC, hobbled by a partisan split among its commissioners, has defaulted to tacit approval of any gray areas, into which campaigns are happy to step. It's not without risk, particularly if members of the campaign can't resist the urge to figure out how to work with the PAC. The benefits are much larger.
It's early, and this is an early report. But a PAC-led campaign was going to happen at some point, and given the scale of resources needed for a presidential race, it makes sense (in retrospect) that it would happen first at that level. If Bush doesn't win, it's unlikely to curtail the trend.
Or, as they might say in science fiction: The future has arrived.