Marvel Entertainment CEO Ike Perlmutter’s recent $1 million donation to a charity associated with Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump sparked controversy. Some argued that this contribution from a top Marvel executive benefited a candidate whose politics did not reflect Marvel Comics’ ongoing efforts to be diverse in its content and appeal to comics readers. The controversy also generated interest in Perlmutter and his wife’s $2 million contribution to a political super PAC supporting Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio.
While the controversy focused on the politics of the candidates who benefited from Perlmutter’s contributions, one troubling aspect of these donations remains unexamined: the influence that wealthy individuals like Perlmutter can have on the U.S. election process, particularly through contributions to super PACs.
To explore this influence, just imagine that the Marvel Universe has the same U.S. campaign finance laws that we have in the real world, and let’s see how this impacts the hypothetical political activities of our favorite comics characters.
When Doreen Green isn’t fighting crime as the unbeatable Squirrel Girl, she campaigns for a congressional candidate that supports net neutrality. Doreen believes that maintaining equal access to the Internet is fair and promotes innovation by allowing new, small companies to compete with giant corporations. Doreen’s candidate is a strong supporter of net neutrality, and Doreen does all that she can to get her elected.
By law, the maximum that Doreen can give to her candidate’s campaign is $2,700 for the upcoming election; Doreen doesn’t have enough money to donate that much, so she makes a $30 contribution and volunteers to canvas for the candidate in her free time.
But her friend, billionaire Tony Stark (also known as Iron Man) is supporting the opponent of Doreen’s candidate. Tony believes that net neutrality is an outmoded concept; he argues that there is too much data clogging the existing Internet infrastructure, and that Internet service providers should charge companies more in exchange for greater bandwidth and faster speeds.
Unlike Doreen, Tony can afford to make the maximum $2,700 contribution to his candidate’s campaign, and he does. Additionally, Tony gives $2 million to a super PAC called “Excelsior Forever” that supports his candidate. Excelsior Forever uses Tony’s money to produce television, radio, and direct mail advertistements that support the candidate and his opposition to net neutrality. These campaign ads reach thousands of voters.
Doreen sees these ads paid for by Excelsior Forever, and does some research. She discovers Tony’s contribution to the super PAC and is furious! She confronts Tony in his workshop.
“How could you spend so much money on that candidate?” Doreen asks. “The most a person can give to a candidate for the upcoming congressional election is $2,700, but you’ve spent millions on his campaign!”
Tony — not bothering to turn away from his work on a prototype arc reactor — responds: “It’s true that a person can only lawfully donate $2,700 to a candidate’s campaign. However, thanks to the 2010 Supreme Court ruling Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and subsequent court decisions, the government can’t restrict contributions from corporations, groups, or individuals to independent political expenditure committees like Excelsior Forever. Unlike traditional political action committees (‘PACs’), these ‘super PACs’ can’t give money directly to a candidate’s campaign or coordinate spending with a campaign, but it can spend an unlimited amount of money advocating either for or against candidates.”
Sparks fly from the arc reactor as Tony makes his final point: “I didn’t give $2 million to my candidate. I gave $2 million to a super PAC that spent millions on advertising in support of my candidate. There was no coordination between the super PAC and my candidate’s campaign. My contribution to the super PAC was disclosed, so everything is legal.”
Doreen isn’t satisfied with Tony’s explanation: “So we have different opinions about net neutrality, but because you’re a billionaire, you can legally donate a small fraction of your vast wealth to sway hundreds of thousands of voters? It would take about 67,000 small donors like me just to match your one contribution. With such unbalanced contributions and spending, voters are mostly presented with the information that supports your viewpoint. How can voters make an informed choice on this issue?”
Tony turns from his prototype arc reactor to look at Doreen. He shrugs and says, “Hey, spending money on campaigns is a form of free speech, so I have more free speech than you do.”
Because it wouldn’t be the Marvel Universe without a physical confrontation over philosophical differences between two superheroes, Doreen punches the crap out of Tony!
Doreen’s point about the number of small donors needed to match the contributions of big donors to super PACs is a real concern. In the 2012 presidential election, just 61 wealthy super PAC donors –– each contributing an average of $4.7 million — matched the presidential campaign contributions of 1.4 million small donors, and about 60% of all super PAC donations came from 132 donors giving $1 million or more.
Doreen’s concerns about the fairness of campaign finance laws aside, note that both Tony and Doreen are well-intentioned in this hypothetical campaign; they have different viewpoints on an issue, and both engage in lawful political behavior. Furthermore, the super PAC Excelsior Forever follows the law and discloses its donors.
But in the Marvel Universe — just like in the real world — some campaign contributors aren’t so altruistic.
Just imagine that the CEO of the shady Roxxon Energy Company also supports Tony’s candidate, not because the CEO has an interest in abolishing net neutrality, but because the candidate supports federal subsidies for companies like Roxxon that import vibranium from the Savage Land.
Roxxon benefits financially from these subsidies, and Roxxon’s CEO wants to ensure that his candidate wins. He could follow Tony’s example and make unlimited personal or corporate contributions to a super PAC. But maybe he has concerns that the political contributions might alienate some of Roxxon’s customers, or that some voters will take issue with the candidate getting financial support from a company that will profit from his victory.
So instead, Roxxon’s CEO donates $2 million to a social welfare organization. Such organizations are tax-exempt nonprofits [designated as 501(c)(4) organizations by the Internal Revenue Service] that can engage in limited political activities to promote “social welfare” — examples include the Sierra Club and the National Rifle Association.
Like super PACs, these organizations can receive and spend unlimited amounts of money in support of candidates (so long as they don’t coordinate campaign spending with the candidates, and so long as political activities are not the organization’s primary purpose). But unlike super PACs, which are political committees regulated by the Federal Election Commission and must disclose their donors, these nonprofit social welfare organizations are regulated by the Internal Revenue Service and don’t have to disclose their donors.
Roxxon’s CEO donates $2 million to the social welfare organization, Excelsior Always, which is affiliated with the super PAC Excelsior Forever; the two organizations share not only a similar name, but office space and staff. Excelsior Always donates $2 million to super PAC Excelsior Forever. On the super PACs campaign finance report, Excelsior Always is listed as the donor, and — because he donated to the affiliated social welfare organization rather than the super PAC — the Roxxon CEO’s name doesn’t appear on any campaign finance reports.
Before you dismiss this scenario as the far-fetched scheme of a fictional villain, note that this happens in the real world. For example, in 2012, the Los Angeles Times reported that two social welfare organizations — which did not disclose their donors — gave money to super PACs supporting Democratic candidates; the newspaper suggested the reasons for these donations:
“Because tax-exempt groups — which tend to be more successful than their super PAC counterparts at raising money — cannot make political activity their primary purpose, some election law experts anticipated that many of them would simply transfer increasing amounts of money to their sister organizations, effectively funneling untraceable money into political spending.”
Both Democratic and Republican candidates have benefited from dark money donations to super PACs, although super PAC spending favors conservative candidates. In 2012, approximately 67% of super PAC spending in federal elections supported conservative campaigns, totaling $407 million; approximately half of all federal super PAC expenditures ($303 million) were made by super PACs that did not provide full disclosure of its donors.
So while the unbeatable Squirrel Girl strives to have a voice in the political process, her humble but earnest efforts are frustrated by wealthy individuals who have the legal means and financial resources to make unlimited campaign contributions — without public scrutiny, if desired.
While some Marvel fans express their anger at Perlmutter’s large donations for the benefit of particular candidates like Trump and Rubio, they might also want to examine the campaign finance system that grants rich donors the political advantage of making huge, sometimes non-transparent campaign contributions.
The Sunlight Foundation outlines the differences between dark money social welfare organizations and super PACs, with examples from the current presidential race.
All Marvel Comics intellectual property referenced above (Squirrel Girl, Iron Man, Roxxon, Latveria, etc.) is used for not-for-profit, educational, and parody purposes only. The actions and opinions of the Marvel characters were written by the author, and do not reflect Marvel’s position on any political issue.
“Excelsior Forever PAC” and “Excelsior Always” are fictional entities used in this article to illustrate the practices of non-fictional super PACs and social welfare organizations.
This article explores how dark money from social welfare organizations is funneled to super PACs, which evades the super PACs’ required donor transparency. However, the Citizens United decision also allows social welfare organizations to spend huge sums of money on political activities directly (the only limitation being that the political activities/expenditures should not be the organization’s “primary purpose”). Many social welfare organizations do so, with little oversight from the IRS and no donor transparency. The site ProPublica explores this issue in more detail.
The images above are the property of their respective owner(s), and are presented for not-for-profit, educational, and parody purposes only under the fair use doctrine of the copyright laws of the United States of America.