Smaller super PACs — not just the big ones — are impacting the presidential election and local races this year.
Super PACs supporting presidential candidates have been in the limelight this campaign season. However, a number of lesser-known and smaller PACs are emerging and could have an impact as well. There are more than 500 federally registered super PACs but only a few that are raising millions, according to recent Federal Election Commission (FEC) data.
“There’s going to be a giant proliferation of super PACs, and there’s only going to be a dozen that are really big,” said Neil Reiff, an expert in campaign finance law and an attorney at Sandler, Reiff, Young & Lamb in Washington. “There are going to be hundreds of smaller ones,” he added. “In a presidential election, a super PAC that has $10,000 isn’t much. But let’s say if you’re in a rural congressional district and you have $100,000, that’s a lot of money. I think it just depends on the context. Especially if it’s a primary where you’ve got a bunch of candidates with no name recognition, I think they can make a big impact. It probably doesn’t take a whole lot,” he said.
Super PACs, technically independent expenditure-only committees, were created in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Unlike regular political action committees, corporations, individuals and unions can legally raise unlimited amounts of money for and against political candidates.
In the 2012 elections, super PACs have been ubiquitous. GOP candidates, including Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, have had at least one super PAC dedicated to their campaigns and largely funded by a handful of wealthy and generous donors.
Smaller super PACs, such as 1911 United, a pro-Obama PAC, have raised about $47,000 and spent about $3,000 on Internet consulting and website maintenance in the beginning of the quarter, according to the FEC’s first-quarter report. Reiff said raising money online is a growing trend; it only takes $5 to start a super PAC.
“I have a lot of clients who are setting up super PACs, sticking to the Internet and spending a fair amount of money on Google ads,” Reiff said. “There’s heavy investment in that, and you’ll see that grow overtime. The Internet is the place to be in terms of campaigns and outside groups. You can do a really nice website for $5,000 to $10,000, and spend $20,000 on web ads just getting traffic to your website. You can get a lot for $40,000 to $50,000, and you’re going to see a lot of that in smaller super PACs.”
Super PACs such as Club for Growth Action focused more on the primaries, but there are some who focus on the the general election, said Bill Allison, editorial director and a money-in-politics expert at the Sunlight Foundation.
“What they want to do is pull a party to the right or to the left or to protect the establishment against the more extreme candidates,” he said. “So there’s always groups that play primarily in the primaries to try to shape the party to tip their ideological or policy preferences. Then there’s groups that play in the general election — where all they care about is the Republican majority or Democratic majority — so they’re going to support the candidates that they think can win. A lot of these groups may just be waiting for the general election and not spending in the primaries. “
Super PACs have faced heavy criticism because of their potential influence on elections. However, these groups are relatively transparent. The FEC requires that super PACs disclose their donors either monthly or quarterly. Each organization must submit the names of every donor and the amount given. The groups also notify the FEC of their expenditures within a 24- to 48-hour window.
Rules forbid coordination between a PAC and the candidate, but they are tough to enforce since the FEC is vague on what coordination means. Reiff said candidates cannot create super PACs but can make appearances and solicit personal but no corporate checks.
“It’s a pretty big deal if you think about it because the FEC has given the green light to solicitation by federal candidates for super PACs,” he said. “It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but they have ruled this.”
As the general elections start to heat up this fall, it’s likely that outside groups will continue to spend heavily and affect voters. Allison said that it doesn’t take a whole lot of money to have an impact, but if you happen to be one of the candidates that the super PAC is targeting, you’re in a lot of trouble.
“We started with Citizens United where the argument was independent expenditures would not be corrupting money in politics, so it was fine for these outside groups to spend money, talking to voters, etc.,” he said. “What we’ve seen is exactly the opposite, where you have super PACs that are tied closely to candidates and campaigns. And clearly with Citizens United, there’s no governmental interest in keeping this money out. Clearly we’ve seen the exact opposite.”
Below is a list of super PACs and total money raised based on Federal Election Commission Data. Not all super PACs are listed in this chart.