It is always risky to construct over-arching theories about political stories that do not get written. But, forgive me, because in this case I cannot resist.
The dominant reason, I suspect, why the lowest-unit-rate rules are almost universally ignored is that they do not fit neatly into anyone’s narrative of the 2012 super PAC story. Political campaigns—especially the Obama effort—deftly employ the threat of opposition super PAC spending as a goad to fund raising. Media consultants, many of whom would love to get a piece of the super PAC ad business, have little incentive to say anything skeptical about TV spending. And campaign reformers, justifiably dispirited by the post-Citizens United political environment, do not want to utter a syllable that would undermine their Henny Penny, “the-sky-is-falling” gloom over the rise of super PACs.
Veering close to heresy, I am beginning to wonder if political reporters have exaggerated the potency of super PACs. Yes, these playthings of the rich are indeed a menace to democracy. But rules like the lowest unit rate and bans on direct coordination with the candidates prevent outside groups from spending their money as effectively as the campaigns themselves. The sharp difference in ad rates could be enough to keep even big donors earthbound from now until November. So maybe it is time for reporters to rethink some of the leap-tall-buildings-with-a-single-check assumptions about the super powers of super PACs.