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The presidential super PACs: five takeaways

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Note: the analysis below is based on initial data pulled from the FEC's website. As more complete data become available, we will update the analysis to reflect what we learn.

The first round of super PAC annual filings came in yesterday, and we at Sunlight have been digging through them since. Our reporting team has been blogging the reports as we digest them.

Below are five takeaway points, based on a Sunlight Foundation analysis of FEC filings for nine super PACs that raised at least $500,000 in 2011 and have spent money in the presidential election. (For a complete list of super PACs, click here.)

 

1. It’s a few rich donors running the show

Among nine super PACs that raised at least $500,000 and have spent on the presidential election so far, almost half of the itemized contributions (47.9%) came from just 22 donors who gave more than $500,000. And 90 donors who gave more than $100,000 accounted for 78.6% of the contributions. (See Table 1). Overall, these super PACS had only 714 itemized contributions (631 individuals and 83 organizations), though more than half (405) were under $10,000 or less.

In other words, these super PACs are turning out to be vehicles for a very limited number of wealthy individuals and corporations to spend very large sums of money and take a blaring megaphone to the concept of political speech.

Table 1. Donors by contribution size

Total Donors Total Given Share of total contributed Cumulative Share
More than $1M 6 $14,723,819 23.4% 23.4%
More than $500K-$1M 16 $15,400,000 24.5% 47.9%
More than 100K-$500K 68 $19,300,674 30.7% 78.6%
More than $50K-$100K 81 $7,782,760 12.4% 91.0%
More than $10-$50K 138 $4,748,700 7.6% 98.6%
$10K or less 405 $936,856 1.5% 100.1%
Total 714 $62,892,809 100%
Table 2 provides a list of 17 individuals and organizations who gave at least $1 million in 2011. The Sunlight Reporting Group has details elsewhere on just who these big donors are, but for a quick look, see below.

Table 2. Million dollar donors

Donor Total given PACs given to
Harold Simmons $5,500,000 AMERICAN CROSSROADS , WINNING OUR FUTURE
Bob Perry $3,600,000 MAKE US GREAT AGAIN, INC , RESTORE OUR FUTURE, INC.
Contran Corporation $3,000,000 MAKE US GREAT AGAIN, INC , AMERICAN CROSSROADS
Jerry Perenchio Living Trust $2,000,000 AMERICAN CROSSROADS
Jon Huntsman $1,887,040 OUR DESTINY PAC
Freedomworks $1,336,779 FREEDOMWORKS FOR AMERICA
Whiteco Industries, Inc. $1,000,000 AMERICAN CROSSROADS
Robert Rowling $1,000,000 AMERICAN CROSSROADS
Eli Publishing Inc $1,000,000 RESTORE OUR FUTURE, INC.
F8 LLC $1,000,000 RESTORE OUR FUTURE, INC.
Melaleuca, Inc. $1,000,000 RESTORE OUR FUTURE, INC.
Rooney Holdings, Inc. $1,000,000 RESTORE OUR FUTURE, INC.
Edward Conard $1,000,000 RESTORE OUR FUTURE, INC.
John Paulson $1,000,000 RESTORE OUR FUTURE, INC.
Julian Robertson $1,000,000 RESTORE OUR FUTURE, INC.
Paul Singer $1,000,000 RESTORE OUR FUTURE, INC.
Robert Mercer $1,000,000 RESTORE OUR FUTURE, INC.
 

2. Most of the donors are individuals, but corporations are playing a big role

 In Table 2 above, we see that of the 17 contributions of $1 million or more, seven came from corporations, led by the Contran Corporation, which gave $3 million. Contran is run by the Texas billionaire Harold Simmons, who also gave $5.5 million of his own money. Both gave to the pro-Perry super PAC “Make us Great Again, Inc.”. Simmons has since moved onto the pro-Gingrich “Winning Our Future”; Contran has moved onto the anti-Obama “American Crossroads.”

Overall, of the 714 itemized contributions to the nine super PACs, organizations (mostly corporations) were responsible for only 11% (83) of the contributions, though they did give 29.7% of the total donations.  Still, the giving is dominated by individuals. On average, individuals gave more ($70,024 vs $29,648), primarily because there were more really big donations from individuals.

Table 3. Individual and organizational donations.

Number Avg Donation Total donations Share of total donations
Individuals 631 $70,024 $44,185,079 70.3%
Organizations 83 $29,648 $18,707,730 29.7%
3. Super PACs vary in their reliance on the very largest donors

 Figure 1 below visualizes the breakdown of super PAC donations by their reliance on different classes of donors. To see how much of each super PACs contributions have come in different sizes, read the figure vertically. To see the share of total super PAC spending coming from each super PAC, read the figure horizontally.

Figure 1. The distribution of money going to super PACs

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graphic by Ali Felski

While it’s clear that all of the super PACs are getting the majority of their donations from donors giving more than $50,000, they do vary in the extent to which they rely on donations in chunks of $500,000 or more.

Tables 4 and 5 below provide some more detail. Table 4 shows that all nine super PACs have one donor giving at least $150,000, and five of the nine have at least one $1 million donor. It’s also important to note that five of the nine rely on a single donor for at least one quarter of all that PAC’s donations, and three of the nine get the majority of their funding from a single donor.

Table 5 shows both the number of itemized donors giving to each PAC and the total number of donors giving $50,000 or more. Again, we see some variety. The pro-Paul Endorse Liberty has only five donors; the pro-Romney Restore Our Future Inc. has 258.

Four super PACs got at least 40% of their contributions in $50,000 increments, and two got at least 60% (the pro-Perry Make Us Great Again, Inc., and the pro-Paul Endorse Liberty Inc.) Meanwhile, both the pro-Tea Party, anti-Obama Freedomworks for America and Obama’s Priorities USA Action collected more than 90% of their itemized contributions in less than $50,000 increments, However, Freedomworks for America did get two-thirds of its donations from Freedomworks, a 501(c)(4). Overall, one quarter of donations came in at $50,000 or more.

 

Table 4. Top Donors of the Super PACs

Top Donor Share

Committee Total Donations 2011 Top Donor Top Donor Contribution Top Donor Share of All PAC Contributions
RESTORE OUR FUTURE, INC.

$30,175,653

10-way tie

$1,000,000

3.3%

AMERICAN CROSSROADS

$18,185,675

Harold Simmons

$5,000,000

27.5%

MAKE US GREAT AGAIN, INC

$5,360,174

Contran Corporation

$1,000,000

18.7%

PRIORITIES USA ACTION

$3,121,625

William Little

$150,000

4.8%

OUR DESTINY PAC

$2,680,290

Jon Hunstman Sr.

$1,887,040

70.4%

FREEDOMWORKS FOR AMERICA

$2,161,567

Freedomworks

$1,336,779

61.8%

WINNING OUR FUTURE

$2,080,250

William Little

$150,000

7.2%

ENDORSE LIBERTY INC

$1,020,000

Peter Thiel

$900,000

88.2%

RED WHITE AND BLUE FUND

$764,000

Foster Friess

$331,000

43.3%

 

Table 5. Super PACs by reliance on $50,000+ donors

Committee # of total itemized donors Donors giving $50K + Pct giving $50K+
RESTORE OUR FUTURE, INC. 258 104 40.3%
AMERICAN CROSSROADS 131 22 16.8%
MAKE US GREAT AGAIN, INC 58 35 60.3%
PRIORITIES USA ACTION 37 3 8.1%
OUR DESTINY PAC 18 8 44.4%
FREEDOMWORKS FOR AMERICA 173 3 1.7%
WINNING OUR FUTURE 37 4 10.8%
ENDORSE LIBERTY INC 5 3 60.0%
RED WHITE AND BLUE FUND 16 2 12.5%
 ALL 733 184 25.1%
 

4. Some donors are giving to multiple Super PACs

It's also worth noting that there were 15 individuals and organizations that gave to at least two different super PACs, led by Perry Homes CEO Bob Perry, who gave to three (the pro-Perry Make us Great Again, the anti-Obama American Crossroads, and the pro-Romney Restore our Future). Bob Perry, of course, is no stranger to major political giving. In the 2010 cycle, he gave more than $7 million, making him the most generous political donor of the cycle.  What this shows is that some of these rich individuals cannot limit themselves to just one super PAC, and probably will continue to spend widely.

 

Table 6.  Individuals giving to multiple PACS

Donor # of PACs Total given PACs given to
Bob Perry

3

$3,600,000

MAKE US GREAT AGAIN, INC , AMERICAN CROSSROADS, RESTORE OUR FUTURE, INC.
Harold Simmons

2

$5,500,000

AMERICAN CROSSROADS , WINNING OUR FUTURE
Contran Corporation

2

$3,000,000

MAKE US GREAT AGAIN, INC , AMERICAN CROSSROADS
Philip Geier

2

$750,000

AMERICAN CROSSROADS , RESTORE OUR FUTURE, INC.
Kenny Troutt

2

$650,000

MAKE US GREAT AGAIN, INC , AMERICAN CROSSROADS
Kenneth Griffin

2

$400,000

AMERICAN CROSSROADS , RESTORE OUR FUTURE, INC.
John Templeton

2

$350,000

RED WHITE AND BLUE FUND , AMERICAN CROSSROADS
Jim Walton

2

$200,000

OUR DESTINY PAC , RESTORE OUR FUTURE, INC.
Samuel Zell

2

$150,000

AMERICAN CROSSROADS , RESTORE OUR FUTURE, INC.
Frank Hanna

2

$35,000

RED WHITE AND BLUE FUND , WINNING OUR FUTURE
John Dowd

2

$25,000

MAKE US GREAT AGAIN, INC , AMERICAN CROSSROADS
Thomas Sudberry

2

$20,000

MAKE US GREAT AGAIN, INC , RESTORE OUR FUTURE, INC.
James Stanard

2

$7,500

AMERICAN CROSSROADS , RESTORE OUR FUTURE, INC.
William Becker

2

$7,500

AMERICAN CROSSROADS , RESTORE OUR FUTURE, INC.
Joyce Goetz

2

$1,500

WINNING OUR FUTURE , FREEDOMWORKS FOR AMERICA
 

5. Conclusion: It’s going to get worse

These revelations should not come as a surprise. But what’s impressive is just how concentrated the giving is. Among them, these nine presidential Super PACs have raised more than $62 million. Of that money, almost half (48%) has come from just 22 individuals.

We’ve already seen just how potent these super PACs can be in the first few Republican primary contests. As the electoral season moves on, super PACs will likely expand to House and Senate races as well. If what we’ve seen so far is any indication, more and more  political fundraising will be dominated by the handful of super-wealthy individuals and  corporations who can and will spend seven figures. These kinds of contributions can change the dynamics of a political campaign, which gives these individuals incredible potential power. It cannot be a good thing for our electoral process.

Sunlight is advocating for improved super PAC transparency. To see out what we recommend, click here.