What are the differences between a PAC/SuperPAC and a political party?

  • 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?

  • 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.

    "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.

    @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.

    @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)

    So in a race where a party is not supporting a candidate, is the only difference the fundraising limits?

    @Jim I would say you really need to look at the way people perceive and treat political parties versus PACs. Especially in the U.S., parties are seen as creators of platforms and organizing ideological bodies for voters and candidates. While a PAC might fund a candidate, they run as a member party that appeals to a collective identity. While the two institutions might serve similar purposes during elections, they diverge in public perception. Additionally, if a party does not support a candidate in an election, generally it won't be involved in that election in a significant way.

    @Brythan: The answer you're commenting on doesn't seem to mention a limit on donating to parties; it simply says an individual can only give $2700 per election to a specific candidate per election, which matches the table you linked.

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