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Super PACs: It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s—Well, It’s Complicated

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And then there were four.

Ahead of the South Carolina Republican primary set for Saturday, Texas Governor Rick Perry announced Thursday he is dropping out of the race and throwing his support behind Newt Gingrich. That leaves Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum to duke it out in the last debate Thursday night before the vote over the weekend.

Before Perry called it quits, polls by both CNN and Politico showed Romney with a shrinking lead over Gingrich with Paul in third and Santorum in fourth (Perry had been dead last).

The other big news on the trail Thursday is Santorum's official win over Romney in Iowa. A certified tally of the vote shows Santorum won by 34 votes.

Whoever wins the South Carolina primary on Saturday, a lot of attention will no doubt be focused on the Super PAC ads that have run non-stop in the state, just as they did in Iowa and New Hampshire and have started in Florida.

The pro-Romney "Restore Our Future" Super PAC is credited with dragging down Gingrich's poll rating in Iowa, which resulted in Gingrich losing to Santorum, Romney and Paul. One of the recent ads claims "Newt has a ton of baggage," criticizes him for his "30 years in Washington flip-flopping on the issues" and shows him siding with Nancy Pelosi and Al Gore on global warming.

Super PACs are a relatively new phenomenon and definitely new to Presidential elections. As with anything new, there are a lot of questions surrounding what exactly Super PACs are and why they are now part of the country's democratic election process.

John Dunbar, managing editor for The Center for Public Integrity's online web publication, joined The Daily Ticker's Aaron Task in the accompanying interview to help us answer these questions and to discuss the impact Super PACs are having on the race.

What Are Super PACs?

The PAC in "Super PAC" stands for political action committee. PAC have been around for a long time but Dunbar explains what makes these new groups "super" is they "can accept unlimited contributions from individuals, corporations and labor unions, and take those funds and spend them to elect or defeat a federal candidate."

"These are called independent expenditures," he continues. "The bulk is spent on advertising, though they can include direct mail and other costs. These committees cannot coordinate with the candidate they are supporting. They affect the election the same way any political ad can affect an election — by convincing voters to support or oppose a candidate."

It is the unlimited nature of these organizations' fund-raising that separates them from PACs of the past.

What's the Financial Impact?

Total expenditures by presidential Super PACs in the early primary states is $26.5 million as of January 18, according to The Center for Public Integrity.

Romney has benefited the most. To date, $9.5 million has been spent on his behalf, much of it coming from Restore Our Future. Gingrich is the second-biggest benefactor with roughly $4.5 million thrown to his cause, mainly through Winning Our Future, which has run ads depicting Romney as a corporate raider and job killer.

Who Is Behind The Super PACs?

Many of these organizations are founded and run by former employees of the candidates they support, which makes it easy for them to coordinate a message without direct communication from a candidate.

As for the money flows, only the contributions made through first six month of 2011 are currently public. The next disclosure report comes at the end of the month after many of the primaries will have ended and the GOP candidate is likely already named.

But what we know so far indicates the mega rich are the prime contributors to these Super PACs. Here a list compiled by The Center of Public Integrity:

  • Restore Our Future: The pro-Romney Super PAC received $1 million from hedge fund manager John Paulson and $1 million from Bain Capital managing director Edward Conard, which was originally reported via a shell corporation.
  • Winning Our Future: The pro-Gingrich Super PAC received a $5 million check from billionaire Sheldon Adelson.
  • Red White and Blue Fund: Wyoming billionaire Foster Friess gave half a million to the pro-Santorum Super PAC.
  • Priorities USA Action: This Super PAC favors President Obama. Dreamworks chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg contributed $2 million and Fred Eychaner of Newsweb Corp. gave $500,000.

Where Did Super PACs Come From?

"The Citizens United Supreme Court decision and a lower-court ruling in 2010 allowed corporations, individuals and labor unions to make unlimited contributions to independent organizations that use the money to support or defeat a candidate. The ruling led to the creation of super PACs," writes Dunbar.

A handful of states are trying to fight back by introducing legislation that would amend the constitution. Five states in 2011 introduced bills to amend the constitution, and 7 states did so in 2010, according to FreeSpeechforPeople.org. This week the "Occupy" movement takes this message to courts and corporations around the country. (Stay tuned for additional Daily Ticker coverage Friday)

Why Should You Care?

Proponents of Super PACs will tell you these committees are good for America as they promote free speech by allowing people and corporations to spend as much money as they want to support whatever candidate they want.

Dunbar disagrees. "That's a terrific argument [only] if you're a billionaire," says Dunbar.

Do you support the Supreme Court's ruling to allow unlimited contributions by individuals and corporations in this country's electoral process? Tell us what you think in the comments below or on our Facebook page.