The Campaign Spot

The Difference Between SuperPACs and 501(c)(4) Nonprofits

Over at Talking Points Memo, Benjy Sarlin argues that my article today is wrong, and the media narrative of cash-strapped President Obama, victimized by big-spending super PACs, is right. The heart of Sarlin’s complaint is that my review of FEC data is wrong because it doesn’t count the spending that isn’t included in the FEC data.

Correct; I didn’t measure that which can’t be measured, or for which data is not available.

My article is careful: “Actual spending by super PACs so far this year tells a quite different story.”

Sarlin’s smoking gun is an ad campaign by “Crossroads GPS.” But Crossroads GPS is not a super PAC. As some media have pointed out, “American Crossroads is a super PAC, but Crossroads GPS is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit ‘dedicated to educating, equipping and engaging American citizens,’ according to IRS filing.” Unsurprisingly, some media accounts conflate the two groups.

As the Congressional Research Service notes, “Super PACs must follow the same reporting requirements as traditional PACs. This includes filing statements of organization and regular financial reports detailing most contributions and expenditures.”

“Issue ads” and other forms of political advertising may not be included in the FEC filings because groups themselves define whether an ad “opposes” or “support” a particular candidate. And it’s fair to argue that what some groups call “issue ads” come right up to the line of being what most viewers would consider a campaign ad. Unfortunately, classifying whether a group’s spending really does count as supporting or opposing a candidate would mean reviewing everything they do, a task beyond even my abilities. Short of that, we can look at what they’re telling the Federal Election Commission and work from there.

And as I noted in the article, data filed with the FEC can be erroneous, pointing to a DGA group listing expenditures as “supporting” Romney and misspelling the GOP nominee’s name several times.

But everything in my article is accurate, including the sums of the pro-Obama super PAC and comparison to all of the actual right-of-center super PACs, and is based on everything the FEC has in its databases, up to July 3. I would bet that 99.9 percent of political junkies had no idea that Priorities USA Action, founded by Obama’s former deputy White House press secretary, Bill Burton, had spent $13.5 million on “oppose Romney” efforts so far. And it is more specific and detailed data than any of the rest of the super PAC coverage. Yet Sarlin concludes this information is “worthless” as a measure of outside spending.

If the new narrative will be “501(c)(4) nonprofits are beating up on Obama” instead of “super PACs and groups making independent expenditures are beating up on Obama,” fine. Of course, it is worth noting that liberals have their own 501(c)(4) nonprofit groups as well — Media Matters Action Network, the Center for American Progress Action Fund, and the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund, to pick a few examples.

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