Buying of the President

Published — March 16, 2016

Super PACs built a wall around Florida, and Trump destroyed it

Ad blitz by Republican establishment couldn’t rescue Rubio, either


A coalition of outside groups paid for more than 4,300 anti-Donald Trump ads during the week before Tuesday’s primary election in Florida — all to no avail as the real estate mogul sailed to an easy victory.

In winning, Trump, whose own campaign aired 1,801 ads in the Sunshine State, dealt a death blow to Sen. Marco Rubio’s presidential hopes, and in Rubio’s home state, no less. Rubio announced his exit from the race as Trump basked in victory.

The Florida battle was notable in that Rubio’s campaign committee did not pay for a single TV ad in Florida, according to a Center for Public Integrity review of preliminary data compiled by Kantar Media/CMAG, a political advertising data firm.

Instead, Rubio outsourced it: Conservative Solutions PAC sponsored all ads promoting Rubio, which also sometimes served the dual purpose of attacking Trump. As a super PAC established to support Florida’s junior U.S. senator, Conservative Solutions PAC can raise and spend money without limits.

Also leading the anti-Trump barrage was Our Principles PAC, formed in January to block Trump’s nomination. The super PAC has spent more than $14 million since forming, attacking Trump via TV ads, mailers and voter calls, according to Federal Election Commission records.

There is currently one known megadonor to Our Principles PAC: Marlene Ricketts, whose family owns the Chicago Cubs. She is wife of Joe Ricketts, founder of TD Ameritrade.

Our Principles PAC paid for 1,560 ads. “Dark money” nonprofit American Future Fund aired 1,991 ads while Club for Growth Action aired 793 ads.

But the top ad buyer was Conservative Solutions PAC, which inundated Florida with nearly 4,300 ads, about half of which positively touted Rubio’s biography. Some of the ads ran in Spanish.

Trump acknowledged the negative ad blitz at an election night press conference, calling the ads attacking him “vicious.”

“Nobody has ever, ever in the history of politics received the kind of negative advertising that I have,” Trump said on Tuesday night.

Meanwhile, Ohio Gov. John Kasich won his home state with relative ease. Kasich’s campaign aired 1,690 ads in Ohio compared to Trump’s 1,930 in the final week leading up to the primary.

But Kasich got help from outside groups. New Day for America, a super PAC formed to help the governor, paid for 724 ads. The anti-Trump super PAC Our Principles PAC aired 442 ads, Kantar Media/CMAG data show.

Super PACs were made possible by the 2010 Citizens United v. FEC decision and a lower court case later that year. Together, they allowed outside spending groups to collect and spend unlimited sums of money — including from corporations, unions and certain nonprofits — to support or oppose a candidate.

Trump is largely financing his own campaign and has no significant backing from super PACs. What he does have is almost nonstop media coverage that essentially dwarfs any ad campaign that can be mounted against his candidacy.

It’s not wise to generalize about Trump because “he’s such a media phenomenon — who else has gotten so much free time?” asks campaign finance expert Rick Hasen, law and political science professor at the University of California at Irvine.

“One of the reasons super PACs have not been so influential at the presidential level is there’s so much other money and media interest,” he said, in an interview prior to the Tuesday night’s results. Once you move farther down the ballot, super PACs become far more influential, he added.

But despite Rubio’s poor showing, super PACs have played a critical role. Were it not for these benefactors, he would in all likelihood not still be a candidate.

Meanwhile Trump cleaned up in the other primaries, winning Illinois and North Carolina. Trump appeared to barely inch out Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas in Missouri.

Looking ahead, with Rubio out, the Republican contest becomes a three-way race, although though Trump is clearly in the driver’s seat.

He leads by more than 200 delegates, having reached the halfway mark to the delegate threshold needed to earn the GOP nomination.

Chris Zubak-Skees contributed to this report

Read more in Money and Democracy

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