What the Media is Leaving Out About Sanders and Super PACs

Of General Concern | Amber Papas | February 8, 2016

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PACs and big corporations aren’t fans of people trying to get rid of them. But nobody said fighting the man was easy, and nobody said the media would be on the side of the rebels.

This is a lesson that the Bernie Sanders campaign is learning quickly. Two days before the Iowa state caucus, Sanders was beginning to get pummeled in the news. Articles everywhere seemed to be calling him a liar, questioning his true motivation and beliefs, and pointing to erroneous, sanders_PACsmisconstrued information to do so. The media are attempting to give a view of Bernie that paints him as egotistical and manipulative, in other words: making him look like every other candidate. As the Sanders campaign has gained more traction, the media have adjusted their original plan of just disregarding Sanders in their coverage to making Sanders look bad.

The biggest criticism he has faced in the recent days are regarding the super PAC called National Nurses United for Patient Protection that have, according to the FEC independent expenditure disclosure, have spent $1,019,469.74 on Sanders’ campaign. This seems shocking at first considering his vocal criticism for big money in politics, but it is important that we note what a super PAC is and what role they play within the system.

What exactly is a super PAC?

Super PACs are technically called “independent expenditure-only committees.” Each super PAC pools contributions from its members and then spends those money on political campaigns. While super PACs can engage in unlimited political spending independently of campaigns, they are not allowed to make contributions directly to campaigns or coordinate directly with candidates or political parties (keep in mind thaty it is perfectly legal for candidates and super PAC managers to discuss campaign strategy through media).

Independent expenditure-only committees came into fruition in 2010 after two big cases: Citizens United v Federal Election Commission and speechnow.org v Federal Election Commission. In PACs_citizensunitedthe Citizens United case, it was decided that the first amendment prohibited the government from restricting independent political expenditures by a nonprofit corporation. This decision was quickly extended to include for-profit corporations, labor unions, and other associations. In the Speechnow.org case, it was decided that PACs that did not make contributions to candidates parties, or other PACs could accept unlimited contributions from individuals, unions, and corporations.

The reason this is important is because political candidates don’t have much control over who spends money to help their campaign. Since super PACs do not donate money but rather spend it on behalf of the candidates they support, it is completely out of the candidates’ hands. The supporting super PACs can be affiliated or unaffiliated.” Affiliated super PACs are often created or staffed by the candidate’s political allies and act as extensions of the official campaigns” (Politifact). If a campaign decides to become affiliated with a super PAC, it can push their supporters to join that committee and donate money to them with the hopes that their money will be spend to help their favorite candidate.

There are a lot of logistics when we discuss super PAC spending, so I will try to explain as we go along.

Down the Rabbit Hole

It is in regards to super PAC independent expenditures that has created headlines including Bernie Sanders’ campaign. Independent expenditures “are ads that expressly advocate the election or defeat of specific candidates and are aimed at the electorate as a whole” (OpenSecrets).  Sanders has been vocal and proud of the fact that he does not have a super PAC, unlike his rival Hilary Clinton. Most of his donations come from small individual donations. In fact, in January of this year he raised more than $20 million from more than 777,000 individual contributions (CNN). But, he still has had generous support from a few super PACs, the biggest of which is called National Nurses United for Patient Protection.

“They are nurses and they are fighting for the health care of their people. They are doing what they think is appropriate.” – Bernie Sanders

What started me down this rabbit hole was an article that was posted in the New York Times on January 28, 2016 entitled “Bernie Sanders Tops His Rivals in Use of Outside Money.” The article does make a valid argument regarding how much money National Nurses United has spent on Sanders’ campaign, but it also makes some large, sweeping claims that do not hold up to the figures. One such claim is that, “more super PAC money has been spent so far in express support of Mr. Sanders than for either of his Democratic rivals, including Hillary Clinton.” This claim hinges on a technicality: they are only looking at independent expenditures and not all spending by super PACs in support of a candidate.

Super PAC Independent Expenditures

When looking at the independent expenditures alone, we can tell a lot about the differences between the two candidates. For one, Sanders does have a lot of money from a few super PACs in support of his campaign. To be more specific: a lot more money from one super PAC in particular. Overall, Sanders has $1,101462.84 from five super PACs. Granted, National Nurses United makes up 92.6 percent of this total. The other groups, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, Friends of Earth Action, Democratic Socialists of America, and America’s Renewable Future, all endorse him with the largest independent expenditure coming from the Democratic Socialists of America with a total of $43,008.13. Only two super PACs have spent money against Sanders: Education Savings Account (ESA) Fund and Generation Forward PAC. For obvious reasons, the ESA Fund doesn’t want Sanders in the presidency since it will make the purpose of their existence obsolete and have spent $829,500 against the candidate. As for the Generation Forward PAC, they openly endorse Sanders’ rival O’Malley and have spent $10,000.

“I made a decision, now it wasn’t an easy decision, I said if I am going to walk the walk and not just talk the talk, I am not going to have a super PAC.” – Bernie Sanders

Clinton on the other hand has a total of $1,236,843.23 in independent expenditures in support of her from fourteen different super PACs. The most notable of these are the Priorities Action USA that have spent $409,271, Planned Parenthood Votes who have spent $207,530, and Leave of Conservation Voters who have sent $162,115. She also has a considerable amount of money being spent against her campaign: a whopping $5,937,537 from thirteen super PACs including Freedom’s Defense Fund (which spent $10,529 in support of her at one point) and Citizens United (which also spent $140,000 in support of her campaign). Regardless of all other outside money, as of January 30, 2016, Clinton still had a little more than $100,000 spent for her campaign in independent expenditures. She also has readily aligned herself with Priorities Action USA and is therefore affiliated with them, whereas Sanders has no such thing.PACs_sanders_2

In terms of outside spending, an article by The Intercept stated:

“When total super PAC spending is measured, Clinton groups are leading the way…If the Times had taken into account all the pro-Clinton Super PAC campaign spending from this cycle, outside money spent in support of Clinton is more than twice the amount spent in support of Sanders.”

Because spending and independent expenditures are different, the Times article wasn’t exactly wrong, just leaving the wrong impression. Since then, the New York Times has openly endorsed Hillary Clinton, the former Senator of New York, in an editorial called “Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Nomination.” So in terms of finding the legitimacy of information, it’s always a good idea to look at the source.

With regards to regular PACs, Sanders has made it well known that he does not want or need their help. When Collective Actions PAC began to endorse him, the Sanders campaign team asked them to stop. According to Politifact, “Sanders’ lawyers ‘have told them to stop,’ said Michael Briggs, communications director for the Sanders campaign.

Why Not Tell Them to Stop?

With such strong conviction against having super PAC or PAC endorsement, why does Sanders not ask the National Nurses United to cut it out?

This probably is because of who the super PAC is made up of. While some super PACs are corporations or made up of billionaires, National Nurses United is comprised of “close to 185,000 PACs_NNUmembers” who are all unionized nurses from around the country. They are, in fact, “the largest union and professional association of registered nurses in US history.” Their founding convention was in December of 2009 in which they adopted their principles, which include:

  • Advance the interests of direct care nurses and patients across the U.S.
  • Organize all direct care RNs “into a single organization capable of exercising influence over the healthcare industry, governments, and employers”
  • Expand the voice of direct care RNs and patients in public policy
  • Win “healthcare justice, accessible, quality healthcare for all, as a human right

With a message like that, it’s no wonder Sanders sees no reason to tell them to stop, since they are fighting for much of the same things that he is.

What Does Sanders Have to Say?

The strange thing about all of this is that the endorsement came on August 1o, 2015 (CNN). It was actually on November 24, 2015 that CNN reported that “Union super PAC helps Sanders and he won’t tell them to stop.” When asked about it, Sanders said, “They are nurses and they are fighting for the health care of their people. They are doing what they think is appropriate.” He also highlighted that, “What I have said over and over again is that I do not and will not raise a nickel for a super PAC. I am the only Democratic candidate who does not have a super PAC. I will not have a super PAC.”

Sanders has stated that he would not coordinate or raise money for a PAC and that he would not take super PAC help. But the thing about a super PAC is you get their help whether you want it or not. While his campaign managers and aides have possibly misconstrued his message, Sanders is more PACs_unitedadamant about not raising money for a PAC or super PAC or having one of his own than he is about not accepting help from the right kinds of people. Sanders said, “I made a decision, now it wasn’t an easy decision, I said if I am going to walk the walk and not just talk the talk, I am not going to have a super PAC.”

An article in The Atlantic stated quoted Chris Pearson, a Vermon state representative who once worked for Bernie Sanders’ congressional office in Burlington, as saying:

“It definitely puts him at a disadvantage in terms of the amount of money he can raise, nobody disputes that…He can’t do anything to stop people from setting up super PACs, so he really is being honest when he says he doesn’t want them. If people don’t listen, that’s not his fault.”

Even National Nurses United don’t think that they are a super PAC. The executive director of National Nurses United, RoseAnn DeMoro, said in an Atlantic article, “It’s not a super PAC, super PACs are corrupt. They’re a way for the billionaires to influence the political process and spend unlimited money. This is nurses who want to get our support for Bernie out there. That’s way different than the Koch brothers. This isn’t big money. I think people understand the difference.”

While people may not, Sanders most certainly does. And now with a little knowledge, hopefully you do too.