Are federal PACs obsolete?

Abstract

In the wake of Citizens United, political action committees (PACs) face new sources of competition from super PACs and 501(c)4 social welfare organizations and 501(c)6 professional associations for both donor contributions and electoral influence. Using itemized and summary committee files from the U.S. Federal Election Commission, I investigate factors that predict PACs’ fundraising success between 2008 and 2014 and I examine the impact of PAC contributions on House candidates’ vote margins since 1992. While I uncover evidence of PAC fundraising challenges that may relate to growing competition from other groups, I also find PAC contributions to House candidates have increased in importance. Taken together, the results suggest PACs continue to occupy a vital niche in campaign financing.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Unions (501(c)5s) can also raise and spend independently in unlimited amounts but must publicly report itemized disbursements to the Department of Labor.

  2. 2.

    501(c)4 and 501(c)6 organizations only report summary revenue totals to the Internal Revenue Service. These groups engage in politics to a varying degree that is not simply represented by their tax classification. Cross referencing IRS reports with FEC reports would not provide an accurate assessment of which groups engaged in spending to influence elections as some 501(c)4 and 6 organizations choose not to report to the FEC even though they should (Barker 2012). As a consequence, gaining accurate revenue totals for politically active 501(c)4 and 6 groups is not feasible and gaining totals by revenue source (which are not reported anywhere) would be impossible.

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Correspondence to Anne E. Baker.

Appendix

Appendix

Fundraising costs of PACs and super PACs. Any expenditures relating to all forms of fundraising, such as event invitations and catering, are included in the calculations of total fundraising costs made from the U.S. Federal Election Commission’s (FEC) operating expenditure files 2008–2014. The FEC provides numeric codes for the categorization of itemized disbursements. When PACs or super PACs utilized the fundraising code, i.e., 003, the line item was retained in the file unless there was an obvious error. However, PACs and super PACs utilize these codes less than 50 percent of the time. The majority of line items are not categorized at all. As a consequence, it was necessary to prune the operating files on a line-item basis in order to calculate the total fundraising expenditures made by the PAC or super PAC. More obvious fundraising expenditures, such as auction items and event expenses, are included in the totals. Categories such as postage and printing required a clear set of guidelines for deletion. The rule that was followed for these large categories was that any descriptions that implied the cost was not a fundraising cost led to the deletion of the line item. As groups often include information about how to donate on their mailings, I retain almost all postage and printing entries as fundraising costs unless a code or description indicated it was not. As a rule, in-kind contributions were deleted. There were also many line items that were clearly not fundraising costs and could be quickly deleted. For example, they include: polling, health insurance, GOTV specific materials, and office rent. Finally, PACs also spend money on a wide variety of activities to assist in donor recruitment and cultivation that included line items such as opera tickets, boat rentals, golf green fees, and hunting licenses. These were retained. Gifts to donors and any auction items or entertainment used at donor events are also retained.

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Baker, A.E. Are federal PACs obsolete?. Int Groups Adv 7, 105–125 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41309-018-0034-4

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Keywords

  • PACs
  • Campaign finance
  • House election campaigns
  • Political fundraising