On Friday afternoon at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, Stephen Colbert hosted a “campaign rally” with former Republican Presidential candidate Herman Cain to get students and viewers to vote for Cain in the next day’s primary election. Of course, Cain had not been running for over a month— he suspended his bid for the presidency early in December following allegations of sexual harassment. Yet his name could not be removed from the South Carolina ballot.
Colbert took the opportunity to illustrate how recent changes to the way campaign finances are managed are toxic to the voting system by supporting Herman Cain through his Super PAC. Cain’s slot on the ballot and any votes for him were void, but the exercise pointed towards a problem that started two years earlier.
Soon after the rather appalling decision in the case of Citizens United v The Federal Election Committee in 2010, Colbert started working on his own Super PAC (super political action committee), and tried to humorously show how crooked these new changes are. The controversial Supreme Court ruling held that the right to unlimited corporate political spending was guaranteed under the First Amendment.
Like American Crossroads and all other PACs, “Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow” was able to ask for donations from his viewers without having to disclose the donors or the sum he had collected. Colbert ran ads with the money from his Super PAC, frequently sent out humorous emails and pushed for donations on his show. Proclaiming that “A vote for Cain is a vote for me. Unless it’s a vote for Cain, in which case–what are you doing? He’s not even running!” The spectacle was frighteningly similar to the gimmicks of other Super PACs and proved how easily they can be created and used to manipulate public opinion.
What brought Colbert’s mockery of the new campaign finance system from an inside joke between his viewers to a much grander scale were the Public Policy Polls in early January which showed 5% of South Carolinians would vote for Colbert in the primary. Colbert outranked Jon Huntsman and Buddy Roemer. In a subsequent favorability poll, 36% of voters gave him a thumbs-up, putting his favorability rating above that of all other Republican candidates. Colbert would have asked his “Nation” to vote for him instead but his timing was too late to get himself on the ballot and South Carolina does not allow for write-in candidates. (He later dropped his campaign altogether.)
After announcing on January 12 that he was “exploring his bid to run for President of the United States of South Carolina,” Jon Stewart appeared on set along with their lawyer, Trevor Potter, to sign over the Super PAC to Stewart since candidates are not allowed to head Super PACs.
At the rally, students cheerfully welcomed Colbert and were often impatient with Cain when he began to speak. The rather conventional campaign-speech-y manner in which Cain addressed the South Carolina crowd seemed to indicate he wasn’t entirely aware of the comedic coating of the event. In direct contradiction to the rally, he reminded the students that their vote counts and that they should not vote for him on Saturday.
Colbert’s sidekick who still doesn’t know how to say “Uzbekistan,” at least understood the message they were spreading; ”One of the flaws is the ability for super PACs to have the kind of impact that they’ve had. We saw the impact in Iowa. We saw the impact all over. So [Colbert's] right that they are flawed but we need to overhaul the entire campaign finance law in order to make it much more equitable such that big money does not determine who actually gets the nomination.”
In the end, Herman Cain landed in fifth place in the primary with about 1% and 6,329 votes.