Super pacs are thriving, but they already seem almost old-fashioned. Yes, you can, if you want, create a shell corporation and funnel millions to a super pac without identifying yourself (it’s been done). But why not put your unlimited contributions into a fund that doesn’t have to identify you? In the post–Citizens United gold rush, political operatives are stretching an old IRS loophole, creating nonprofit “social welfare” groups, called 501(c)(4)s, that can raise and spend money on campaigning without disclosing their sources. In August, an investigation by ProPublica found that two such groups had put more money into the presidential campaign than all the super pacs combined—though the super pacs themselves had spent more than the political parties. “I enjoy anonymity,” Foster Friess, the Wyoming investor, told NBC News in August, in explaining his shift from super pacs to more-secretive vehicles.
In 1974, Congress established a public financing system for presidential elections, providing equal amounts for the major-party nominees, as long as they agreed not to raise money from private donors for their own campaign (though they could, and did, raise private money for a political party). Barack Obama, in 2008, was the first presidential candidate to reject this public funding. This year, both candidates opted out, and they have been putting a great deal of time into asking for money. In July, they both held more private events for donors than public events for potential voters. By late July, Obama had held a total of 194 fund-raisers in his third and fourth years in office—more than his four predecessors in the same period combined, according to a study by the political scientist Brendan J. Doherty, of the United States Naval Academy. In the same period, Ronald Reagan held three fund-raisers.
In 2000, spending on all federal races totaled about $3.1 billion. By 2008, it had risen 70 percent, to $5.3 billion. This year, it’s expected to be substantially more—though, given the amount of undisclosed spending, the sum may never be known.
“It’s a good thing,” Bopp told me. “We need more spending on elections. Most people don’t even know who their congressman is. Don’t even know their name or their party.” There are many reasons for this ignorance, he continued, but “part of it is a lack of relevant, pertinent information. The more money that is spent, the more individualized messages will be able to be funded. The more individualized messages, the more voters will feel that the message is pertinent to them, and the more they’ll learn.
”In the parallel political world—a world in which more money, more anonymity, and more spending by noncandidates are bad things, dangerous to democracy—the most plausible candidate to be Bopp’s foil is the lawyer Trevor Potter. Potter is also a midwesterner (from neighboring Illinois) and a Republican; like Bopp, Potter got his earliest political experience volunteering for Barry Goldwater. But his own love of constitutional law, study of the Founders, and adventures in Republican politics sent him down a very different intellectual path. Potter was one of the leading lawyers behind the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, known as McCain-Feingold, the most significant campaign-finance law in 30 years. To a large extent, it is Potter’s work that Bopp has been systematically gutting. “Jim has always been in the position of making arguments that other people thought were wild-eyed, went too far,” Potter told me, a little ruefully. “And he’s proved them wrong.”