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My understanding is that both PACs/SuperPACs and parties are organizations that raise and spend money for/against particular candidates/issues. Aside from PACs/SuperPACs not being allowed to coordinate with candidates (whereas candidates/elected officials usually coordinate strongly with parties), what are the differences?

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A PAC is a political action committee that basically collects campaign contributions to donate to campaigns for or against a particular candidate or issue. An organization becomes a PAC when it receives/spends more than $2,600 on influencing a federal election. Federal PACs can donate specified amounts to candidates, political parties and other PACs, but can donate unlimited amounts independent of a candidate or political party.

Super PACS (independent-expenditure only committees) cannot donate to candidates or parties. They can, however, spend an unlimited amount independent of those two entities. There is also no limit on how much money an individual or group can donate to a super PAC, unlike a regular PAC.

Political parties are groups that collectively seek common goals through political power. They are not, fundamentally, fundraising groups like PACs/Super PACs, though they do fund political campaigns. In the United States, we have a two-party system, with the right and left catching almost every piece of the ideological spectrum. Donations to and spending by political parties is highly regulated by the Federal Election Commission (FEC). An individual may only give $2,700 per election (primary and general count as different elections) to a candidate. In a presidential election, an individual may only contribute $2,700 for the entire primary campaign period, not per individual state primaries.

A political party offers candidates for public office, while PACs support candidates that are generally already pursuing office.

  • "or issue" is an important practical distinction that may be worth expanding on. In US 2-party system, a party is never a single-issue party; whereas a PAC can be devoted to a specific issue that might be wholly independent of party orientation. – user4012 Jul 30 '15 at 14:56
  • "A political party offers candidates for public office, while PACs support candidates that are generally already pursuing office." Aren't the party primaries the parties' way of deciding which candidate already running they want to support? I wouldn't say the Democratic party offered Bernie Sanders for office, but he is already running for President and is seeking that party's support. – yoozer8 Jul 30 '15 at 15:00
  • @Jim I would argue that yes, there is a selection process for the parties, and that comes in the form of a primary. Although candidates now are saying they are running for president, they are really running for a party's nomination. So the political party, made up of voters, will pick who they want to offer for public office through a primary. If Sanders were to win the Democratic primaries, he would be presented as a candidate for the Presidency, offered by the Democratic Party. – caitin huber Jul 30 '15 at 16:14
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    @user4012 yes I totally agree, thanks for bringing that up! PACs originally formed because labor unions felt like their influence was being diminished in politics after WWI, and they grew from there. PACs can be single issue or oriented towards an ideology or group of voters (e.g. minorities, women) – caitin huber Jul 30 '15 at 16:19
  • So in a race where a party is not supporting a candidate, is the only difference the fundraising limits? – yoozer8 Aug 6 '15 at 0:56
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Coordinating with candidates: PACs and parties can. SuperPACs cannot.

Open Secrets on contribution limits:

  • Limits on individual contributions: $5000 for PACs; unlimited for SuperPACs; multivariate for parties, as different party organizations can accept different amounts ranging from $10,000 through $33,900 to $101,700.

  • Contributions to candidates: $5000 or $2700 for PACs; not allowed by SuperPACs; parties may contribute $5000 per candidate ($47,400 per Senate candidate combined with party's senatorial committee).

PACs cannot receive direct contributions from companies. Companies can subsidize them by allowing them space or other resources. But the donations have to come from individuals or other political committees. PACs can contribute to individual candidates or their campaign committees.

A SuperPAC is not a PAC. A SuperPAC is a 501(c)(4) that may express political messages. The specific thing that a SuperPAC can do now that organizations like it could not prior to the Citizens United decision is to make independent expenditures that mention a candidate by name. Prior to that, these organizations could only express general support for particular positions, e.g. lower taxes or increased welfare spending. These organizations can accept money from corporations and unions.

A single party can have multiple associated organizations and accounts, including:

  • A national committee.
    • A presidential nominating convention.
    • Recounts and other legal proceedings.
    • A headquarters building.
  • A state committee.
  • A county committee.
  • A municipal committee.
  • A Senate campaign committee.
  • A House of Representatives campaign committee.

Each of these can contribute to candidates. Beyond that, they can also engage in independent expenditures on behalf of candidates. For example, they can pass out flyers supporting one or more candidates on election day or fund commercials supporting candidates. SuperPACs can also do this, but parties may coordinate this spending with candidates.

It is because of these multiple accounts that Hillary Clinton could raise $353,400 a seat at a fundraiser in 2016. The money would get split among multiple accounts.

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