“Super” political action committees and nonprofits unleashed by the Citizens United 2010 Supreme Court decision have spent more than $840 million so far on the 2012 elections, with the overwhelming majority of it favoring Republicans, particularly presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
Of all outside spending in the elections, more than $450 million was dedicated to the presidential election: More than $350 million has been spent helping Romney and about $100 million to help President Barack Obama. The spending helped close the gap on Obama’s considerable fundraising advantage over Romney.
The totals are from a joint analysis of Federal Election Commission data by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan organization that tracks campaign spending, and the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan investigative organization. The centers’ analysis covers the period from Jan. 1, 2011, through Oct. 28, 2012, and it doesn’t include independent spending by the political party committees.
The final tally will be higher as spending continues to accelerate before Election Day.
Obama’s campaign has raised more than $632 million in the 2012 election, 62 percent more than Romney’s $389 million. Even when including money raised by the Democratic and Republican national committees, Obama has an edge: $924 million for the president’s re-election team, versus $758 million for Romney and the Republicans.
The deluge of outside spending was made possible by a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court and a lower court ruling that allowed individuals, labor unions and corporations to give money to outside spending groups – mostly nonprofits and so-called super PACs – to buy advertising that attacks or supports candidates.
Unlike traditional political action committees, super PACs have no contribution limits and the money they raise can’t be donated directly to candidates. The money has been used primarily to pay for attack ads.
Before the Citizens United decision, groups that wanted to advocate expressly for or against a candidate were limited to receiving no more than $5,000 per donor per calendar year. Super PACs now are allowed to raise unlimited amounts from corporations, unions and individuals.
In the current election, super PACs generally have been backed by super donors. Billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his family, for example, had given $54 million to Republican super PACs as of mid-October, far more than any other donors in this election cycle.
Nonprofit “social welfare” groups and trade associations can raise just as much money, but they aren’t required to report their donors. The lack of transparency sparked legislation to require disclosure, but it was defeated.
Nonprofits were responsible for more than $245 million, or about 30 percent, of the $840 million in total outside spending. That’s about $100 million more than they spent in 2010.
Of the total spending amount, an estimated $577 million, or roughly 69 percent, was spent by conservative groups, compared with $237 million spent by liberal groups, or about 28 percent, with the remainder expended by other organizations.
During the week of Sept. 30, outside groups benefiting Romney spent about $16.5 million, mostly on ads attacking Obama. Three weeks later, the seven-day total jumped to more than $55 million, according to FEC filings.
Outside spending benefiting Obama over the same period never exceeded $14 million, records show.
Super PACs have raised about $660 million in the 2012 election.
Restore Our Future alone accounted for about $1 out of every $5 in super PAC donations received. The pro-Romney group raised more than $130 million, much of which was spent decimating the candidate’s rivals during the Republican primary.
The Obama-backing Priorities USA Action raised $64 million.
The amounts have grown significantly: In 2010, their first year of existence, all super PACs combined raised $85 million.
The explosion in outside spending has coarsened the political debate, flooding the airwaves in Ohio, Florida, Virginia and other battleground states with negative, often inaccurate ads.
Roughly 80 percent of all spending by conservative groups and liberal groups has been negative, FEC records indicate.
All of the nearly $57 million that Priorities USA Action reported spending has been on negative ads about Romney. The group, which coined the slogan “If Mitt Romney wins, the middle class loses,” linked him to the death of a woman who lost her battle with cancer.
Another of the super PAC’s most memorable ads featured a worker describing how building the stage on which officials announced his plant’s closure, after it was bought by Bain Capital, which Romney helped found, was like building his own coffin and it made him “sick.”
Eighty-eight percent of Restore Our Future’s spending went toward negative ads, as did 95 percent of the expenditures of American Crossroads, another super PAC.
Many of these ads have criticized Obama’s handling of the economy, arguing that the country “can’t afford” four more years of the president’s policies. One spot features a small-business owner saying, “We can’t create more jobs until Obama loses his.”
Others ads have featured disillusioned Obama supporters from 2008 expressing disappointment with the president.
The top 149 individual super PAC donors – each of whom has contributed at least $500,000 – are responsible for $290 million of the money raised.
And 858 individuals who contributed at least $50,000 to super PACs accounted for nearly 60 percent of the money the groups have collected in the 2012 election. By way of comparison, the median household income in 2011 was $50,054, according to the Census Bureau.
Donations from large, publicly traded corporations have been relatively rare, but in the waning weeks of the campaign, oil and gas giant Chevron wrote a $2.5 million check to the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC backing Republican candidates that’s closely associated with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
The emergence of super PACs has been heralded by some, such as Republican lawyer Brad Smith, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission who co-founded the conservative Center for Competitive Politics.
Super PACs “have helped to level the playing field between Romney and Obama, whereas otherwise Obama’s spending advantage would have been substantial,” Smith said. “And in some cases they have raised issues that concern voters that the candidates have chosen to avoid.”
“When elected officials rely on the most-wealthy of wealthy Americans, it means the voices of everyday people lose out,” said Nick Nyhart, the president of the advocacy group Public Campaign, which favors publicly financed elections.
As important as super PACs have been in the 2012 election, the loosening of political spending rules for non-disclosing, nonprofit organizations was also a key development after the Citizens United decision.
Republican-aligned nonprofits have outspent their Democratic counterparts by more than 8 to 1.
Federal law requires nonprofits’ spending to be reported only if a group’s advertisements encourage viewers to vote for or against a candidate, or if they mention a candidate shortly before a political convention or election.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, the author of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United 5-4 opinion, made a point of saying that disclosure was a key part of the court’s rationale. Disclosure would allow citizens to monitor the new political activity.
"This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages," he wrote.
But the tax-exempt groups are spared by Internal Revenue Service and FEC rules from having to publicly reveal their donors.
Researchers Robert Maguire of the Center for Responsive Politics and Alexandra Duszak of the Center for Public Integrity contributed to this report.