In January, Politico’s David Levinthal published an interesting article tracing the origins of the term “super PAC.” According to Levinthal, reporter Eliza Newlin Carney was the person who “made the first identifiable, published reference to ‘super PAC’ as it’s known today while working at National Journal.” Levinthal noted that the term had been used before, but Carney was the first to imbue it with its current meaning of “political committees that may raise and spend unlimited money to independently support or oppose candidates.”
With an assist from a Merriam-Webster editor, Levinthal described the pre-Carney history of the word:
After scouring an in-house database, Merriam-Webster Associate Editor Kory Stamper told POLITICO that The Capital Times in Madison, Wis., used the term in an article in April 1993 — the earliest citation on record.
But that long-forgotten mention referred to an altogether different type of political organization unrelated to contemporary super PACs.
“‘Super PAC’ then dropped out of sight until 2010,” Stamper explained.
But it didn’t drop out of sight completely. In preparation for my upcoming comprehensive exams, I was re-reading a 2002 article by Morris Fiorina that takes a look at 40 years of scholarship on parties and partisanship. In a section critiquing the literature on the resurgence of parties, Fiorina used the term “super-PAC” in a context unrelated to its current usage:
Traditionalists, however, favor conceptual stability, objecting that the organizations operating under the party labels are not parties in the classic sense — mass mobilization organizations that existed during Silbey’s (1991) “party era” (roughly 1838 to 1948). Indeed, party strategies today include the deliberate demobilization of the electorate (Schier, 2000). What we call parties today are giant campaign consulting firms or super-PACs, not classic parties. This argument has no obviously right or wrong answer, but an important implication is that comparing the strength of local, patronage-based organizations in the 1950s with that of the DNC and RNC in the 1990s is inherently difficult, if not impossible. The names have something in common, but the structures and functions of the organizations are different.
This in no way takes away from Carney’s etymological role. I just found it interesting to find the term in the pre-common usage wild and felt the need to to publicize it.