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Election 101: Five basics about 'super PACs' and 2012 campaign money

The 'super PAC' promises to shake up the 2012 election. This new fundraising heavyweight which Stephen Colbert famously brought attention to with his own Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow heralds a new era of 'superspending' in politics. Here are the basics about super PACs and how their emergence may influence elections.

Comedian Stephen Colbert speaks outside of the Federal Election Commission after his hearing to have his Colbert SuperPAC approved in Washington this summer.
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1. What is a super PAC and how is it different from an ordinary PAC?

First things first. Political-action committees, or PACs, are organized by business, labor, or special interest groups to raise money and help elect political candidates or advance a political cause. They've been around since 1944, when a federation of trade unions raised money to reelect then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Any group that receives contributions or has expenditures in excess of $1,000 in order to influence a federal or state election is categorized as a PAC. But PACs can't accept or give more than $5,000 from or to any individual.

Enter the super PAC. Officially known as independent expenditure-only committees, they are like PACs on steroids, says Michael Beckel, with the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics in Washington.

"Super PACs are groups that are allowed to raise unlimited amounts of money to express and fund advocacy," says Mr. Beckel.

The caveat? These new fundraising tools cannot coordinate directly with candidates or parties and cannot contribute directly to campaigns, though that hasn't stopped former top aides for several candidates from leaving campaigns to start "independent" super PACs. They must also disclose their donors, though that hasn't stopped donors from funneling money anonymously via nonprofits.


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