The Colbert Report Is School House Rock on Steroids

If Stephen Colbert's announcement to explore a presidential run was one part ratings ploy, it was at least two parts civics lesson.

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If Stephen Colbert's announcement to explore a presidential run was one-part ratings ploy, it was at least two-parts civics lesson. On Thursday night's show, the Comedy Central host took the legal steps to ready his presidential bid by handing over control of his super PAC, Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, to partner-in-comedy Jon Stewart, rechristening it The Definitely Not Coordinated with Stephen Colbert Super PAC. It could've been seen as a necessary plot detour to arrive at the climactic presidential announcement. But in fact, it was the crucial development in his ongoing scheme to lampoon our absurd post-Citizens United campaign finance rules.

Behold: the underlying civics lessons of Colbert's gonzo experiment:

The lie of super PAC independence 

Though super PACs allow unions and corporations to contribute unlimited amounts of money to support candidates, one thing that is supposed to make them more palatable is the legal restriction that the PACs may not coordinate with the campaigns themselves. The practical limitations of this restriction were skewered effortlessly when Colbert tapped "business partner" Jon Stewart for the role. The Washington Post's Erik Wemple describes the scene:

Enter Stewart, a Colbert crony. They joked to Potter that they were business partners in a joint bagel shop-cum-travel agency From Schmear to Eternity. Would the biz partners stop Stewart from taking over direction of the Colbert PAC? they asked [election attorney Trevor] Potter. The answer:

“Being business partners does not count as coordination, legally.” The business partners reacted giddily and signed a document effecting the transfer of the super PAC to Stewart. They called it, “The definitely-not-coordinating-with-Stephen-Colbert super PAC.” The show proved that serious journalism is no match for our campaign finance laws. Satire is the only way to appreciate them.

The ad-buying power of super PACs
Super PACs seem a lot less theoretical when they start flooding your media market with advertisements and newsletters. And so too does Colbert's experiment as it gears up to inundate South Carolina with advertisements. This morning, Michael Falcone at ABC News reports that the newly-christened super PAC is buying up ads in the Palmetto State.

A source tracking ad buys in early primary states told ABC that the super PAC has purchased nearly $10,000 worth of time on a broadcast station in the Charleston, S.C. area between Jan. 15 and Jan. 19. And according to a South Carolina news web site, the Palmetto Public Record, the super PAC is also reportedly “negotiating a substantial media buy in the Columbia market.”

Ballot rules 
As Colbert fans gear up and speculate about whether Colbert will actually enter the race, the real-world rules of how to get your name on a state ballot become a whole lot more relevant. So too does the ability to be a write-in candidate, which CNN reports may be an impossibility for Colbert:

According to South Carolina election law, Colbert may not get his way. The state's website said write-in votes are prohibited in political party primaries or for president and vice president.

South Carolina Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire told CNN with the Republican presidential primary just nine days away, there "won't even be a way for someone to do that because it's not allowed under the law."

The comedian missed the November 1 filing deadline to get his name on the GOP primary ballot. Whitmire added that, in accordance with the law, there's no write-in space on the electronic and paper primary ballots.

Anonymous super PAC funding 
Another controversial aspect of super PACs is their ability to receive funds without reporting donor names. That aspect was deftly skewered in Colbert's game show sketch about searching for a secret billionaire donor:
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.