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Does Jeb Bush's Fall Mean Presidential SuperPACs Are Overrated?


Jeb Bush's plan was to win the Republican nomination with help from the best-financed super PAC ever, Right to Rise USA. It raised $118 million and spent $94 million of it, but Bush never came close to winning a primary. Now the question is how could so much money get so little return? NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: The fundraising strategy was audacious - collect millions of dollars in unlimited contributions before Bush became a candidate. He solicited his family's donor network himself, something he couldn't do legally after he announced. The campaign strategy was audacious too.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: How can we trust Rubio on anything? Right to Rise USA is responsible for the content of this message.

OVERBY: The Bush campaign committee essentially outsourced its media operation to the supposedly independent super PAC. Michael Franz is a political scientist at Bowdoin College in Maine and co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project.

MICHAEL FRANZ: The candidate sort of doing a lot of the groundwork, and visiting and talking with people, but the super PAC doing a lot of the media. And that model doesn't seem to be one that will likely be replicated.

OVERBY: It probably won't be replicated because it backfired.

FRANZ: The sort of nimbleness is lost when you're doing the division of labor. Even though there's a lot of money coming into the super PAC and it's unconstrained, that doesn't necessarily mean the messaging is going to be effective.

OVERBY: The Bush campaign and the super PAC both took months to figure out how to deal with Donald Trump. So did the other candidates. That meant Right to Rise spent a lot of money on soft-sell Bush biography spots.


JEB BUSH: We made Florida number one in job creation, 1.3 million new jobs.

OVERBY: Ads like this one, instead of ads attacking Trump early on. Brian Walsh is a Republican consultant and strategist.

BRIAN WALSH: You look back and think about, you know, how some of that money could have been used to educate people on Trump's real positions on a lot of issues as opposed to effectively ignoring him and expecting it would go away. Obviously in hindsight, that turned out to be a strategic error.

OVERBY: But it doesn't mean that super PACs don't work or that big money isn't important anymore. Bush's rivals, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, both have super PACs. Not as flush as Right to Rise once was, but financed with multi-million dollar contributions. Kent Cooper is the founder of Political Money Line, which tracks presidential campaign spending.

KENT COOPER: It still comes down to a handful of wealthy people. It's just a huge impact on the presidential race as compared to the, you know, millions of voters around the country.

OVERBY: As of January 31, Right to Rise had $24 million hand. It's reported spending $22 million so far in February, mostly in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. There's no public record yet of any February fundraising. Whatever cash is left over, a lot of it will go to legal and professional fees. But beyond that, no rules exist. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.
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