In the 2012 presidential campaign, super political action committees were helpful, but not required.
Four years later, they are crucial.
The organizations, which can collect unlimited amounts of money, formed earlier this time around. They are raising tens of millions of dollars, more money than ever before. And they are bankrolling what used to be considered traditional campaign activities, such as field organizing, voter turnout and direct mail.
The Stand for Principle PAC printed and distributed Ted Cruz T-shirts before the Texas Republican senator launched his campaign in March. A large group of activists, many paid by Generation Forward, a super PAC supporting former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, rallied outside the Iowa Democratic Party’s Hall of Fame dinner in Cedar Rapids in July.
And New Day for America already has aired TV ads in New Hampshire supporting Ohio Gov. John Kasich, another Republican 2016 hopeful.
“We have never seen the use of super PACs and outside groups to the extent we are seeing them now,” said Stephen Spaulding, policy counsel at Common Cause, a nonpartisan government watchdog group. “The super PACs are operating as arms of candidates’ campaigns with the added benefit of no campaign limits.”
Almost every single one of the nearly two dozen major candidates has a super PAC. Many of them have two, three, even four, making them the must-have tool of the 2016 presidential campaign.
In many cases, the groups supporting the candidates are raising far more than the candidates themselves. That wasn’t the case four years ago.
Candidates raised about $125 million through June 30, according to the Federal Election Commission. But super PACs backing those candidates have collected double that amount, according to estimates provided by most of the groups. Reports required to be filed with the FEC by Friday will provide the total numbers, as well as the first glimpse of who’s bankrolling the organizations.
$103 million The amount Right to Rise has raised to support former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
Restore Our Future, the group backing last cycle’s eventual Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, had raised $12 million by June 30, 2011, according to FEC reports. This time, the largest Republican PACs have collected far more during the same amount of time: Right to Rise, supporting former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, raised an astounding $103 million, while those supporting Cruz raised $37 million and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry nearly $17 million.
At this time in 2011, PACs backing top contenders for the Republican nomination, Perry and former Speaker Newt Gingrich, had not even formed.
Priorities USA Action, which backed President Barack Obama in 2012, had raised $3.1 million for him as of June 30, 2011. It collected $15.5 million for Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton during the same time period this cycle.
Though she will benefit from the money this year, Clinton has said that one of her top priorities as a president would be to get unaccountable money out of the political system, even if it takes a constitutional amendment.
“I wish a lot of things had not come to pass over the last years that I think have very much distorted the financing of our political campaigns,” she said Thursday to reporters. “Having said that, I’ve also said that it’s important as Democrats that we compete with the avalanche of money on the other side that is going to be coming.”
Federal law prohibits a person from donating more than $2,700 to a presidential candidate for the primary or general election. But in 2010, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision freed corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts on trying to elect or defeat candidates.
Before that, a poorly funded underdog could make a decent bid for the White House: Gary Hart in 1984, Paul Tsongas in 1992, Bill Bradley in 2000 and others became serious candidates.
Campaign-finance watchdogs complain that super PACs undermine the spending limits that have guided elections and allow big donors to influence elections in a way that the law was supposed to prevent.
“Mega donors have been hiding behind the innocuous and misleading titles of their super PACs,” said Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., who’s been pushing for more transparency.
Many 2012 candidates benefited from PACs but were careful to not support them publicly in an abundance of caution, because the law bars coordination between the campaign and the groups. This year that’s just not the case.
Priorities USA Action, which backed Barack Obama in 2012, had raised $3.1 million for Obama at of June 30, 2011. It collected $15.5 million for Hillary Clinton during the same time period this cycle.
Several candidates, including Bush and Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, were involved in setting up the groups and spent money on early voter contact, including trips to primary states. Bush, in particular, was accused of skirting laws by waiting to announce his campaign so he could allow his PAC to raise as much money as possible beforehand.
Then there was Carly for America, which is now CARLY for America. The original name had part of candidate businesswoman Carly Fiorina’s name, which isn’t allowed, since super PACs are supposed to operate independently. So the name now begins with CARLY, which stands for Conservative Authentic Responsive Leadership for You and for America.
These days, two tiers of candidates have emerged, the haves and have-nots.
In 2012, Romney demonstrated the value of big money. After Gingrich won the South Carolina primary, Romney and his backers bombarded Florida, site of the next big test, with attack ads against Gingrich. That proved to be the effective end of the former House speaker’s campaign.
“Having no money is going to make things very difficult,” said Lawrence Noble, senior counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, which advocates for changes in current law.
The underdogs say otherwise. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who’s seeking the Democratic nomination, got a standing ovation Tuesday from a labor union audience when he said he’s never taken corporate money and never will. Former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, who is also seeking the Democratic nod, explained that he can overcome the money problem with a dogged grassroots campaign, saying plenty of time remained for voters to get to know him.
Much of the electorate soured long ago on Washington and the political system. The notion that it’s controlled more and more by big donors is likely to further deepen public skepticism.
A Monmouth University poll earlier this month found only one in 10 Americans thought today’s looser campaign finance rules made the political system better. And people are increasingly concerned that it’s making it difficult for qualified candidates to break through.
“The public is starting to worry that the Wild West nature of campaign finance is damaging the way we choose presidential candidates,” said Patrick Murray, the Monmouth poll director.
The money chase intensifies this weekend, as the Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce gathers big donors to meet with some of the candidates. The group expects to hear from Bush, Walker, Fiorina, Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
The group is supported by Wichita, Kan., industrialists Charles and David Koch, whose conservative political network plans to spend $889 million on the 2016 elections.
About 450 people are expected, and candidates will participate in forums expected to be live-streamed. At the winter conference, Rubio emerged as the most impressive contender. But the power of money, or the lack of it, can change a candidate’s fortunes quickly.
Greg Gordon of the Washington Bureau contributed.