WASHINGTON -- A potential candidate who waits too long to launch a presidential run will be too far behind in the race to raise the necessary dollars -- at least, that's been the conventional thinking about presidential campaigns over the past decade. But this election cycle has changed that thinking for a few reasons. One is the advent of super PACs.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, for example, has kept the political world guessing this week about whether he will run for president. Whatever he decides, Christie and other potential Republican candidates have been able to flirt with a run at such a late date in part because the emergence of super PACs has made the task of quickly accumulating funds easier.
Super PACs were made possible by two 2010 Supreme Court rulings -- most notably Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission -- that lifted restrictions on the amount that corporations, unions and individuals can donate to independent groups in elections.
Now, they offer a shadow campaign-in-waiting of sorts for a politician who has a longstanding, established donor base ready to shower him with dollars -- like Texas Gov. Rick Perry and his universe of Lone State funders -- or the ability to catch lightning in a bottle, as Christie does.
"It is a way to mass large amounts of money much quicker," said Kenneth Gross, a former associate general counsel at the Federal Election Commission who now runs the political law practice at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.
"The advent of super PACs and the ability to raise money in big chunks, and the difficulty of proving coordination, means that you can enter the race perhaps at a later time and play catch-up in a way you weren't able to do in previous cycles," Gross said.
In Perry's case, super PACs also provide a mechanism to help him remain a viable candidate, even if his recent GOP debate struggles knock off his campaign fundraising for a period of time. The large constellation of Texas donors committed to seeing Perry win the nomination can give unlimited amounts to one or more of at least five super PACs set up by Perry allies.
Super PACs can take in unlimited amounts of money and can advocate for a specific candidate, but they must disclose their donors.
Perry's former chief of staff, Mike Toomey -- who runs the most prominent of the super PACs supporting Perry, Make Us Great Again -- has reportedly set up a 501(c)(4) non-profit to accept unlimited and completely anonymous donations in support of the Texas governor and his presidential candidacy.
501(c)(4)s are required to conduct at least half of their business around issue advocacy, not political campaigns, but many campaign finance watchdogs believe they skirt the line of compliance. Good government advocates on Wednesday asked the Internal Revenue Service to investigate four 501(c)(4) organizations they believe are not adhering to the law.
Some political operatives with vast experience in campaign fundraising scoffed at the idea of super PACs becoming shadow campaigns, saying the suggestion ignores the law forbidding coordination between an outside group and a candidate's official campaign. They declined to be quoted, however.
But other Republican consultants and political veterans agreed that super PACs have changed the campaign landscape, giving potential candidates like Christie -- or even former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin -- more time to make up their minds.
"Super PACs make the money game totally different [because] they can drive paid media in a more aggressive way," said Scott Reed, who oversaw Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour's (R) preparations to run for president this year and has a long history in Republican politics.
But, Reed cautioned, "candidates still need the basic philosophical and performance skills to play on the national stage."
"The field is so weak that this year, the prep work is less important than before," noted one Republican who has worked in congressional leadership and in the world of outside political groups.
When it comes to possible coordination between a super PAC and an official campaign, it is difficult to prove whether rules are being broken. And many super PACs are run by allies and longtime friends of the candidates, so they may not need to communicate directly with the campaign to know what would be helpful to their preferred candidate.
"How to spend money consistent with the goals and desires of a campaign without coordination is not rocket science," Gross said. "The people who are running these PACs are supporters and have the ability to hire their own consultants and do what they think is in the best interests of the candidate, even if there isn't coordination."
Candidates are even allowed to appear at super PAC events, as long as they do not personally ask for unlimited donations. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has already appeared at an event for Restore Our Future.
"I was surprised that it took people so long to figure out how to run super PACs," said one Republican operative who is not affiliated with any of the campaigns. "Now I'm shocked at how closely the coordination appears."
The GOP operative also questioned whether Democratic groups are obeying the rules.
Priorities USA, a 501(c)(4) that has a super PAC arm called Priorities USA Action, is run by two former Obama White House officials, Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney. On Sept. 8, the super PAC held a focus group in Richmond, Va., to test voters' responses to President Obama's speech to a joint session of Congress. On Sept. 9, Obama made a trip to Richmond to promote the economic package he announced the night prior. Priorities USA Action put out a memo to reporters with the results of their focus group the same morning.
Richmond is a natural place for a Washington-based Democratic group to hold a focus group. It's within driving distance of D.C., in a swing state, and it's House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's (R-Va.) home district.
Still, the Republican operative noted the synergy of the focus group and Obama's trip, saying that if Priorities USA Action wanted to hold its event where Obama would be the next day, the public announcement left little time for the group to plan. The president's Richmond visit was announced on Sept. 6, just two days before the Democratic group held its focus group there the night of his joint address.