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A glossary of campaign finance in the U.S.

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No matter how you feel about it, there's no doubt that campaign finance in America can be very complicated and confusing. The laws surrounding it change all the time, and so do the legal setups and workarounds that campaigns and outside groups use to spend money on elections. The amount of dark money spent so far for 2016, for example, is dramatically outpacing the amount spent at the same point in 2012.

So, to help you (and us) keep track of all these terms, loopholes, organizations, court cases, IRS designations and so on (and on and on), we created this handy campaign finance 101 glossary — written in a way that hopefully everyone can understand. We’ll be updating it with new terms and as new developments in campaign finance occur, so check back often.

Click a letter below to jump to that section. Each term has a "Link" at the end that will bring you to that specific entry if you'd like to share it as well.

# | A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | L | M | O | P | S | T | V


#

501(c) group: These are nonprofit groups regulated by the IRS that are tax exempt. The amount of political activity each group can engage in varies based on its type under the tax code. Every nonprofit must file Form 990s, public disclosure documents that detail basic information — such as revenues, expenses, leadership roles and more — but don't reveal individual donors and often are released months or years after the time period they cover.

There are four kinds of relevant 501(c) groups — (c)(3), (c)(4), (c)(5) and (c)(6); check out this data visualization Sunlight created to see the complex disclosure requirements each 501(c) organization has, and this OpenSecrets chart contains more information. Read more on each individual type below. (Link)

  • 501(c)(3): A 501(c)(3) is a nonprofit group dedicated to educational or research purposes (the Sunlight Foundation is one example). These organizations are prohibited from being involved in any political activity or campaigns — such as lobbying or making independent expenditures — but they can do “voter education” activities, like registering voters. Often, a 501(c)(3) will be connected to a related 501(c)(4) group, which can engage in some political activity — Americans for Prosperity, Planned Parenthood and the NRA all have both 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) groups. (Link)
  • 501(c)(4): Also known as "dark money groups," these make up some of the most relevant political nonprofits today. Technically deemed “social welfare organizations,” these groups can’t have political activity — such as making ads advocating for or against candidates — as their “primary purpose”; this has unofficially been interpreted to mean they must spend less than 50 percent of their activities on politics or elections. But they can raise unlimited amounts of cash from individuals and organizations alike — without having to disclose who contributed that money. Here's a disclosure form for Crossroads GPS, a conservative 501(c)(4) that spent more than $120 million on the 2012 elections — note the $22.5 million donation with no name attached. One thing to keep in mind when trying to track the political activity of these groups: (c)(4)s that spend money directly advocating for or against a candidate (an independent expenditure) or make electioneering communications must report that to the FEC.

    Despite the unwritten rules, many 501(c)(4)s do engage in significant political activity, and since the Tea Party targeting scandal a few years ago, the IRS has been very timid about regulating this; in 2016, they are expressly forbidden from issuing new rules on political activity that would enable them to regulate it. To determine which activities constitute "social welfare," the FEC has little guidelines and will only look at each case on an individual basis.

    A common practice in the post-Citizens United world is to link a 501(c)(4) to an affiliated super PAC. This allows the super PAC to receive unlimited amounts of money without the true donor being revealed. They also can share staff and other resources, like American Bridge 21st Century and American Bridge 21st Century Foundation, a liberal super PAC and its affiliated 501(c)(4), respectively. (Link)
  • 501(c)(5): These are labor organizations, encompassing unions and agricultural organizations, and they’re regulated by the Department of Labor. They are tax exempt and may engage in political activity if it isn’t their primary purpose. They have to disclose donors who give more than $5,000 to the Department of Labor. Most unions use affiliate PACs and super PACs to spend big money on politics, which do have to disclose their donors. (Link)
  • 501(c)(6): These are trade associations and business leagues, like the Chamber of Commerce or the American Medical Association. They’re tax exempt, don’t have to disclose donors and can spend money on political activity and lobbying as long as it isn't their primary purpose. (Link)

527 group: 527 groups are tax-exempt groups that specifically engage in elections at the state or federal level. Unlike 501(c) organizations, they do not have to show any purpose other than politics, such as charity or social welfare. (As such, 501(c)(4) organizations sometimes give money to 527s.) They’re very similar to super PACs: They can accept unlimited donations, including from corporations and unions, and spend unlimited amounts; but, unlike super PACs, they can’t engage in explicit advocacy (ads that say “vote for,” for example). And unlike 501(c)s, they do have to disclose their donors to the IRS. These features make super PACs and 501(c)(4)s generally more popular now.

So who sets up 527s in today's political climate? It’s a particularly popular form with national groups that engage in state politics, such as the Republican Governors Association and the Democratic Governors Association. Although 527s cannot coordinate or contribute with federal candidates, these groups can and do give money directly to local candidates. (Though each state has distinct and specific guidelines that 527s must follow.) They have a number of other advantages, too: They disclose donor information to the IRS, not the FEC, which is slower to report; they can accept unlimited contributions; and they can help donors get around federal contribution limits, because McCutcheon v. FEC wiped out the limit on aggregate campaign contributions.

Unlike super PACs, 527 committees can be created openly by federal candidates and officeholders. But those figures can only solicit funds that are permissible under federal law. For example, Scott Walker, when he was technically not a federal candidate, created his testing-the-waters committee as a 527. Other candidates used multi-candidate PACs or super PACs, which had to either abide by federal contribution limits or maintain the fiction that their sponsors were not actually exploring presidential runs. Some created 501(c)(4) organizations that had to maintain the proposition that they were simply devoted to promoting political ideas and social welfare. (When someone actually becomes a federal candidate is still a murky and unresolved area of campaign finance law). (Link)


A

Ad buy: An ad buy is when a campaign purchases time for a particular advertisement on TV, radio or the Internet. So, if a campaign spends $300,000 on airtime (on certain channels, or on a certain program) for an ad, that might be called a $300,000 ad buy. There are two ways to figure out the size of ad buys. First, outside groups like super PACs have to file notices of independent expenditures (over a certain dollar amount) with the FEC within 48 hours, Here’s an example of a Right to Rise buy from December; this one’s especially helpful because it shows how much the agency who bought the ads for Right to Rise made from this particular buy, under “Agency commission.”

You can use Sunlight's Ad Sleuth tool to get the latest information on political ads purchased at television stations around the country. These files are extra important because they provide the only information we have on who's behind some of the shadowy groups pouring money into the election. (Link)

Aggregate limit: See also: McCutcheon v. FEC. (Link)


B

Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (McCain-Feingold): Abbreviated as BCRA, this legislation significantly amended the Federal Campaign Act of 1971, banning federal "soft money" to parties and candidates, money given outside contribution limits that was intended for general party-building activities. To compensate for this, the amount of "hard money" — money given directly to a federal candidate or committee — was increased. All of those “I’m Candidate X and I approve this message” ads? That’s part of the “Stand by Your Ad” provision in BCRA, in an effort to curb candidates away from making false or inflammatory attacks. BCRA also banned interest groups from spending unlimited soft money on issue ads; however, that provision was overturned in the Citizens United v. FEC decision.

Some critics argue the legislation actually steered money away from campaigns and into independent or third-party groups while making bundlers – fundraisers who rally a group of others to donate – more important. As mentioned in part above, subsequent court decisions have made it a lot easier to circumvent BCRA and spend large amounts on candidates or parties.

BCRA is also commonly referred to as "McCain-Feingold" after its sponsors, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and then-Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis. See also: Federal Election Campaign Act, soft money. (Link)

Buckley v. Valeo: This 1976 court case struck down limits on the total amount a campaign could spend, as well as limits on candidates using their own money for campaigns, but upheld individual contribution limits. (Link)

Bundler: Individuals can only donate a maximum of $5,400 to a candidate per election cycle ($2,700 for primary and general elections), but campaigns often benefit from bundlers. These are usually wealthy, connected individuals who round up checks from other wealthy, connected individuals. Bundlers who are registered lobbyists are required to report what they’ve collected to the FEC, but many people in Washington who do activities the rest of us would think of as lobbying manage to avoid registering as a lobbyist. Some campaigns have voluntarily released information about their bundlers — last year, the Jeb Bush campaign released a list of those who bundled more than $17,600, and Hillary Clinton’s campaign released the names of the “Hillblazers” who had raised more than $100,000. (Link)


C

Cash on hand: This is the amount of money a campaign or PAC has in the bank at the end of a filing period — essentially their receipts minus what they’ve spent. Sometimes committees file a “cash on hand adjustment,” which can reflect simple accounting errors or, sometimes, embezzlement. (Link)

Citizens United v. FEC: Citizens United was a landmark Supreme Court case that allowed corporations and unions to make unlimited independent expenditures on elections. This, combined with Speechnow.org v. FEC — which eliminated contribution limits from individuals to outside groups — created super PACs as we know them. (Link)

Contribution limit: These are the limits on contributions to candidates and political groups from individuals, organizations, political committees and so on. The FEC details them here. As of 2016, the limit on contributions from an individual to a campaign is $2,700 per election. See also: McCutcheon v. FEC. (Link)

Coordination: Although many super PACs exist solely to promote the candidacy of one individual, it’s illegal for super PACs to “coordinate” with that campaign. But what that actually means is pretty narrow, in practice, and campaigns find ways to get around this. So, for example, even though a campaign can’t directly send footage of their candidate to a super PAC, they can upload it all to YouTube and let the PAC find it there — which means some truly bizarre footage is publicly available. The pro-Carly Fiorina super PAC, CARLY For America, has tested the limits — they even held events featuring Fiorina herself before she dropped out of the race. And the pro-Hillary Clinton super PAC Correct the Record claims it can, in fact, coordinate with the Clinton campaign; they claim it's legal because it only posts pro-Clinton material for free on its own website, and doesn’t make independent expenditures on ads. (Link)


D

Dark money: Dark money is money spent on political activity that comes from undisclosed donors. A huge source of dark money is 501(c)(4)s, which don’t have to disclose their donors but often engage in political activity, but it can also come from 501(c)(6)s and shell LLCs. (An important point to note is that super PACs do disclose their donors, and are not considered to be dark money because of this.) The use of dark money has grown dramatically, from $5.2 million in 2006 to over $300 million in 2012. The amount of dark money spent on the 2016 race so far is dramatically outpacing the 2012 rate. (Link)

Disclaimer: All political ads, websites and most emails have to include a disclaimer with the name of the organization or candidate who paid for and/or authorized it. Noncandidate political committees also have to include the physical or web address of the organization. But, crucially, they don’t have to include any information about who provided the money behind that organization — even if it’s an organization primarily or almost entirely funded by one person. See also: True sponsor. (Link)

Disclosure: Political committees have to disclose a variety of information — how much they’ve raised and spent, how much they have on hand, what they’re spending their money on, the names, and addresses and occupations of donors who gave more than $200. At the state level, disclosure requirements vary widely, as do the states’ systems for disclosing information — some states still don’t have electronic reports or downloadable databases of reports. While political committees like super PACs have to disclose their donors, they can take money from sources that don’t disclose their donors, like 501(c)(4)s. (Link)


E

Election cycle: This typically refers to the two-year time period which leads up to a general federal election in the U.S. The 2016 election cycle, for example, consists of 2015 and 2016; the 2014 election cycle would be 2013 and 2014. (Link)

Electioneering communications: Electioneering communications are TV, radio, cable or satellite ads designed to encourage voting for or against a particular candidate — but there are certain requirements these ads need to meet before they are considered "electioneering." First, they have to clearly reference a candidate; second, the ad must air within 60 days of a general election or 30 days of a primary election. Information on these ads must be disclosed to the Federal Election Commission, including who made the buy, the amount and more. No corporate or union funds may be used to pay for these ads.

It matters whether something counts as an electioneering communication or not when outside groups like 527s or 501(c)(4)s make them: 527s cannot make electioneering communications, and 501(c)(4)s can, but it has to make up less than 50 percent of their activity, although they can easily get away with flouting that rule. (At the state level, electioneering communications can also include direct mail.) (Link)


F

FCC: The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is relevant to campaign finance because they determine rules about political ads on TV and radio. Currently, broadcast TV stations are required to post their political files online, and the FCC recently voted to require cable, satellite and radio stations to upload their political files online as well. (Link)

The Federal Election Campaign Act: The Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) is the primary federal law regulating political campaign spending and fundraising. First passed in 1971, FECA was amended in 1974 in response to Watergate and again in 1976 in response to Buckley v. Valeo. The act created the Federal Election Commission (FEC) — the agency tasked with monitoring and enforcing campaign finance rules — required campaigns to report contributions and expenditures, and enacted spending limits (which were overturned in Buckley). The 1974 amendments put the public financing and matching funds system into place, and permitted corporations and unions to form PACs. After Buckley, which overturned spending limits while upholding contribution limits and disclosure requirements, the law was amended again.

In 2002, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act amended the law again to vastly restrict the use of "soft money" in political finance. However, some of these bans were lifted in various court cases in the late 2000s, as well as in 2010 with the Citizens United Supreme Court case, which overturned the complete ban on corporate and union independent spending. See also: Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, soft money. (Link)

FEC: The Federal Election Commission (FEC) is the body that regulates elections in the U.S., including campaign finance. There are six commissioners, three Democrats and three Republicans. It has been described as “worse than dysfunctional” by its then-chairwoman, because it's gridlocked along party lines, meaning there are often no consequences for what others see as huge violations of election law. (Link)

Filing deadline: These are the deadlines by which campaigns and outside groups have to file reports about their election spending. In election years, campaigns file monthly and super PACs can choose either quarterly or monthly; in off years, outside groups file every six months and campaigns file quarterly. If you’re on any candidate’s email list, you’ll often see a dramatic increase in the number of fundraising emails in the days before the filing deadline, because campaigns want their fundraising numbers to be as impressive as possible. (Link)


G

General election: After the parties choose their candidates in the primaries, the candidates face off in the general election. These are held in November, usually in even-numbered years (some states hold their elections in odd-numbered years, like Virginia). At the presidential level, the primaries are held between January and June, and candidates collect delegates to their party’s convention. (Link)


H

Hard money: Hard money is cash contributed directly to a candidate, party committee or PAC. It is regulated by the FEC, meaning it is subject to certain prohibitions (like limits) and can only come from an individual or a PAC. This money can be used to directly on the support of candidates, such as advertising, yard signs and more. See also: soft money. (Link)

Hybrid super PAC: Hybrid super PACs, also knowns as Carey committees, are PACs that have two separate bank accounts — one that contributes to candidates as a normal PAC and one that makes independent expenditures like a super PAC. After Speechnow.org v. FEC said unlimited individual contributions are permissible to groups that only make independent expenditures, Carey v. FEC added the wrinkle that PACs that aren’t connected to a business or union can be “hybrid” PACs, with two bank accounts: one that makes only independent expenditures but can accept and spent unlimited amounts, and one that can give directly to candidates but has to obey FEC limits on giving ($5,400 per cycle, currently). They’re getting bigger over time: They raised $11.3 million in the first half of 2015. See also: super PAC. (Link)


I

In-kind contribution: The donation of goods (such as food), services (setting up an event space), property (office supplies) or anything of value to a candidate or PAC is known as an in-kind contribution. The goods/services rendered must be charged at an appropriate market value, and counts against contribution limits just as if money had been contributed to a campaign. For example, if someone working for a campaign goes out and buys envelopes to mail brochures and isn’t reimbursed, the value of the envelopes is an in-kind contribution to the campaign from that worker. (Link)

Independent expenditure: Independent expenditures (IEs) are communications — like TV or Internet ads, or direct mail — that expressly advocate for the election or defeat of a candidate. They’re "independent" because they’re supposed to be produced by outside groups without coordinating with a candidate or their campaign at all. If the organization spends more than $10,000 in total on IEs on one election, it has to start reporting each expenditure to the FEC within 48 hours. (Link)

Internet blind spot: The Internet blind spot refers to the lack of information around political advertising online. While TV, cable and satellite stations have to upload information about political ads they run (which you can view through our tool Ad Sleuth), Internet ads require absolutely no disclosure at all. The only way to track them is to see when they’re being bought in FEC disclosures, but that tells you nothing about where the ad is running, how much ad space that money bought, how often they’re running or the content of the ad — hence, the "Internet blind spot." (Link)

Issue ad: This refers to political communications, generally advertising, that focus on an issue rather than an individual. They do not advocate for or against a candidate in an election, unlike independent expenditures. Technically, 527s and 501(c)(4)s aren’t supposed to spend money on ads directly supporting or opposing a candidate, so they’ll run issue ads instead; oftentimes these groups claim the ads are educating citizens in the name of social welfare, when in actuality they are thinly veiled attempts to support or oppose a candidate. A famous example of this was the Swiftboat Veterans for Truth ads in 2004, which ran issue ads that focused on John Kerry's record in Vietnam and led to the term "swiftboating," meaning unfair and/or negative attack ads. These issue ads can mention candidates as long as they don’t include “express” advocacy for the candidate, so the distinction gets very blurred. (Link)


J

Joint fundraising committee: These are committees that benefit two or more candidates, PACs or party committees. Since McCutcheon v. FEC, donors can contribute as much as they want to these committees, and the money will be split amongst the beneficiaries in accordance with legal limits. For example: In 2012, Barack Obama established the Obama Victory Fund, a joint fundraising committee made up of Obama's official campaign committee as well as a host of state Democratic Party committees. This committee could solicit huge checks from a single donor, allocate the maximum amount to Obama's campaign — $2,700 per election — then divvy the rest up amongst the various state parties. It’s a very efficient way for big donors to write large checks to multiple candidates or party committees at once. (Link)

LLC: An LLC is a limited liability company. Most LLCs aren’t involved in politics — a lot of businesses are LLCs — but sometimes they’re set up for murky political purposes. They don’t have to disclose donors and can act as sort of political shell companies: Jeb Bush’s super PAC Right to Rise received $100,000 from an LLC called TH Holdings — with no record of any other business dealings. Essentially, that means $100,000 of money with no traceable source went to his super PAC, allowing that donor to circumvent the super PAC disclosure requirement. You might also see LLCs in FEC filings when campaigns and PACs pay them to produce ads; one example is Target Enterprises, LLC, which is run by someone who works for Marco Rubio’s super PAC and is also paid by the super PAC to produce ads. (Link)


L

Leadership PAC: Leadership PACs were originally used by congressional leadership to raise funds for their party’s members. These days, they’re used by regular members of Congress and presidential candidates, and may spend their funds on things that campaigns are prohibited from spending on. Trevor Potter, president of the Campaign Legal Center, has described them as “political slush funds.” They can also be used for presidential candidates before they formally declare their intention to run, which allows them to escape all sorts of regulations on candidates. (Link)

Lobbyist: Broadly defined, lobbyists are people who advocate for some kind of public policy position. If a lobbyist spends more than 20 percent of their time lobbying Congress on behalf of a certain client, they’re supposed to register with the House or Senate, and a certain amount of information on their work must be disclosed; this includes what issues they are lobbying on, which lawmakers they are meeting with, etc. Lobbyists often act as campaign bundlers, hosting fundraisers and collecting checks from many donors on behalf of a candidate, but they have to register with the FEC if they do. Special disclosure rules apply to contributions bundled by lobbyists, such as the aggregate amount bundled, information about the bundler and more.

Many lobbyists avoid registering due to various loopholes, and there’s little enforcement against people who don’t register at all. These individuals are sometimes referred to as "shadow influencers" since they affect policy without having to disclose their activities. See also: Bundler. (Link)


M

McCutcheon v. FEC: This 2014 Supreme Court case removed aggregate limits on contributions, meaning the overall amount a donor gives per election to all candidates and committees. Before McCutcheon, donors couldn’t give more than $123,200 total per election cycle — after McCutcheon, they can give as much as they want, though individual contribution limits to candidates and committees still apply. This led to the creation of huge "super joint fundraising committees", which allowed wealthy donors to support multiple politicians with a single big check. (Link)


O

Outside spending/outside group: This simply refers to groups or spending that isn’t done by candidates or parties, like super PACs, 527s or 501(c)(4)s. (Link)


P

PAC: A Political Action Committee (PAC) is a committee organized to specifically spend money on an election. There are a lot of different types of PACs — super PACs and hybrid PACs, leadership PACs, candidate PACs and so on. Some PACs are formed by industries, corporations or labor organizations; others are formed on behalf of certain candidates. (Link)

Personal financial disclosure: Members of Congress, presidential candidates, political appointees and Supreme Court justices have to file disclosures about their personal finances, covering “assets, debts, earned income, prior employment, agreements, gifts and positions held.” This allows the public to identify any potential conflicts of interest that would compromise the individual's ability to perform their duties. (Link)

Political file: This comprises the documents of information that TV stations are required to keep and post about political ads they air. They include the time the ad aired (and what show was on), how much each ad cost and the total. Some also show how much money the ad buying firm made off the transaction. See also: FCC. (Link)

Primary election: These are elections within a party to determine who a candidate will be in the general election. At the presidential level, they begin as early as January of the election year. Some primary elections are done through caucuses instead, like Iowa’s first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses, where voters gather to choose a candidate through a system of delegate allocations. Otherwise, primaries are conducted like normal elections with a ballot. “Open” primaries are open to all voters, and “closed primaries” are open only to voters registered to that party. In a "jungle primary," the candidates receiving the most and second-most votes become the contestants in the general election regardless of party.

In campaign finance terms, primaries matter because they have distinct contribution limits from general elections; generally, campaigns can accept contributions per election rather than per year, as is the case with PACs and parties. According to the FEC, in the 2016 cycle you may contribute up to $2,700 to a candidate for the entire primary campaign period, followed by another $2,700 in the general. (Link)

Public financing: This refers to when the government provides money for candidates to help fund their campaigns. Requirements to be declared eligible include agreeing to an overall spending limit, abiding by spending limits in each state, using public funds only for legitimate campaign-related expenses, keeping financial records and permitting an extensive campaign audit by the Federal Election Commission. Candidates must also reach certain standards of public support. However, the advantage of this is that they don’t have to raise money, saving them a lot of time — and limiting the amount of potential influence donors can have on campaigns.

In the presidential primary, the government will match up to $250 of each contribution from individuals (but not PACs and other entities). The primary's overall spending limit in 2016 is $57,684,360, plus additional funds for legal and accounting costs if necessary. For the general election, major party nominees receive a grant; in 2016, this totaled $96.14 million. As with the primary, candidates can raise smaller sums of additional funds to pay for lawyers and accountants.

While there is still the option of public financing for presidential candidates, almost none of them use it. Since Barack Obama became the first candidate to reject public funds in 2008, no major party candidate has taken them for the general election, because the amount they can raise from donors is so much more — in 2008, Obama raised $750 million, almost 10 times the amount that his opponent John McCain could spend using public financing.

This money comes from the Presidential Election Campaign Fund, which in turn draws money from citizens who check off a box on their annual tax returns that directs $3 (currently) to the fund. (It's important to note that this money doesn't come from the taxpayer, it comes from the government; checking the box causes the federal government to receive $3 less in tax revenue for other spending.)

In 2015, 13 states provided some form of public campaign financing, i.e. allowing candidates to use public funds to campaign for office. Reports have found that public financing allows for less lobbying interests, more donors and more time legislators spend interacting with their constituents. However, other studies suggest public financing makes it harder, not easier, to elect moderate candidates. (Link)


S

Social welfare organizations: These are 501(c)(4)s. Technically, 501(c)(4)s are “social welfare organizations” that aren’t devoted entirely to political activity, but many (c)(4)s engage in substantial political activity and face no consequences. See also: 501(c)(4). (Link)

Soft money: Soft money refers to cash contributed to a party, candidate or outside group without being subject to limits. Traditionally, these funds have been used for get-out-the-vote efforts, party building and similar activities, not the direct advocacy of specific politicians. Soft money can also come from corporations, unions and other entities that are either banned or restricted in their political giving.

Beginning in the 1996 election, both major party committees raised an enormous amount of soft money, using this money to air "issue ads" that were thinly veiled efforts to support specific candidates rather than party-building activities; this violated the spirit, if not the letter of the law. Following this trend, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 outlawed national party committees from raising soft money, which by this time was considered a major loophole in campaign finance law. See also: Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, hard money. (Link)

Speechnow.org v. FEC: This is the Supreme Court decision that, combined with Citizens United, created super PACs. It specifically allowed unlimited contributions to committees that only make independent expenditures. (Link)

Super PAC: Technically, these are “independent expenditure-only committees,” organizations registered with the FEC that don’t contribute to candidates but do make independent expenditures. They can take unlimited donations from individuals, other PACs, corporations and unions. They do have to disclose their donors, but they can take money from 501(c)(4)s and LLCs that don’t disclose their donors. The amount of money super PACs spend on elections is truly enormous: For the 2016 election so far, super PACs have raised over $500 million and spent over $200 million. Some candidates have super PACs that are funded entirely by one large donor: Ted Cruz has several different super PACs, three of which are funded by distinct large donors from one individual or family. (Link)


T

True sponsor: Political ads have to display a disclaimer about the committee that funded them. But they don’t have to tell you if that committee is entirely funded by one person. Carolina Rising, a 501(c)(4) that spent money to elect Sen. Tom Tillis, R-N.C., in 2014, raised $4.8 million of its total $4.9 million haul from one donor — but its ads only had to display the group’s name and address. Tom Steyer’s super PAC NextGen Climate Action is another example of a group almost entirely funded by one individual whose ads only have to display the name of the group and not the donor that provides the vast majority of their funding. (Link)


V

Vendor: A vendor is a firm paid by campaigns or outside groups to perform certain activities, like buying or producing ads or direct mail. This OpenSecrets list shows the top vendors; bear in mind that many of those groups don’t keep all of that astronomical amount, because media buying firms will pay for the cost of the ads too and include that in what they charge the campaign. Sometimes, these vendors can obscure who is really making money: The biggest vendor of Right to Rise USA, a pro-Jeb Bush super PAC, is an LLC called LKJ, LLC. It's registered in Delaware, which has very opaque registration requirements, so we have no idea who is really behind it — though it shares a P.O. box with a member of the Bush campaign. (Link)


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