Almost a quarter of the $1.2 billion spent in this election cycle ($292.6 million.) has come from dark money organizations, typically 501(c) groups, which are not required to disclose their donors. These groups, led by Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, are afforded such leeway because they cast themselves as “social welfare organizations” engaged in non-political issue advocacy. These organizations claim to be independent of the political party infrastructure, and the overtly political super PACs, but their behavior suggests otherwise. We find, instead, that many of these groups' allocations of resources closely resembles the patterns observed in party committees, like the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) or the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC).
We looked at the 33 outside groups with over $2 million in total spending as of November 2nd, excluding those organizations, which had only spent on the presidential race. By looking at which candidates these groups have spent in support or opposition of, as well as how much they have spent, we have calculated the group’s spending similarity to the Republican and Democratic Senatorial and Congressional committees. These scores range from -1 to 1. A score of 1 indicates that a group allocates its funds across the relevant races in exactly the same ratios as the committee to which it is being compared, and -1 indicates perfectly opposed allocations. Of the groups analyzed spending in the Senate, the average similarity score for that group as compared to the party committee with which it is aligned was 0.395. In the house the effects were notably weaker, with an average similarity score as compared to the aligned party committee of only 0.171. This indicates that outside groups pick and choose the House races in which to be involved much more selectively in the House than the Senate, as compared to party committees whose spending is more widespread.
A highly similar spending allocation indicates that an organization is working towards the same strategic goals as one of the party committees, while a directly opposing allocation indicates that it is working against that committee’s goals. One might expect that non-political groups would appear more independent than the overtly partisan super PACs. Were this the case, ‘non-political’ 501(c)s would tend to have scores closer to 0 than super PACs. However, analysis of the data here finds no evidence, that the spending of these 501(c) groups is any less partisan than the registered super PACs.
Our analysis found no statistically significant variation in these similarity scores between super PACs and the 501(c)s. If anything, the dark money groups seem to emulate one party’s spending or oppose the others spending to greater extent than do the super PACs. Instead, we find high levels of similarity between the party committees and their aligned outside group, which calls in to question the independence of these controversial groups.