More money has been raised for presidential candidates in the first six months of the 2016 election cycle than in the same period during the previous two presidential cycles, but only a fraction is directly controlled by campaigns. Instead, the majority of funds raised have gone to networks of officially independent super PACs and political nonprofits, often controlled by close friends and former aides, that are adopting more and more of a campaign’s essential activities, despite being legally barred from direct coordination.
Presidential candidates and outside groups have already raised more than $400 million for the 2016 election, according to a review of Federal Election Commission filings and news reports.
Unlike previous presidential races, the amounts raised by outside groups have dwarfed fundraising by traditional presidential campaign committees. Presidential candidates have directly raised about $130 million in the last six months for their official campaign committees, which must disclose their donors to the FEC and limit contributions to $2,700 an election. More than twice that amount, $270 million, has been raised by super PACs and tax-exempt social welfare organizations that can solicit unlimited amounts, according to press releases and reports.
Super PACs in previous elections spent most of their funds on television ads, but this cycle super PACs supporting Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s presidential runs have also started field mobilization work, perhaps the most basic campaign operation in the early primary stages.
“I’m skeptical it can be done effectively in block-by-block primaries,” said Michael Malbin, the executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute. “It’s difficult enough to coordinate media buys during a fast-moving campaign.”
Though super PACs are raising much, much more than some candidate committees, the political advantage from the strategy is unclear, Malbin said. “We’ll see where this is going—whether it was really fueled by good thinking, or by political consultants.”
By this time in 2008, the last open election for both parties that featured two long, grueling primaries, presidential candidates had raised nearly $300 million. But almost all of that was channeled through the candidate’s presidential campaign committees: In June 2007, Hillary Clinton’s campaign had raised $63 million, Barack Obama’s $58.9 million and Mitt Romney’s $44.4 million.
Presidential campaign finance records filed with the FEC last week show that Clinton was the only candidate to put up similar numbers, raising about $47.5 million. The next closest candidate was her chief rival for the Democratic nomination, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who raised $15.2 million.
Instead candidates are showing increased reliance on money raised by officially independent groups, often super PACs run by former close aides that have increasingly taken on many of the functions of traditional campaigning. Nearly every major candidate has given their blessing to a super PAC or nonprofit social-welfare organization, which can take in unlimited donations but do not have to disclose their donors.
Even Sanders, the candidate who has pledged not to sanction any super PAC, couldn’t avoid the formation of some sympathetic to his cause.
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush spent five months campaigning for his super PAC, Right to Rise, before officially declaring himself a candidate in mid-June. Fundraisers collected by Political Party Time show that the former governor attended more than 40 events hosted by Right to Rise. The $103 million raised by the super PAC is more than eight times the $11.4 million raised by his official committee.
Right to Rise, currently headed by longtime Bush aide Mike Murphy, is expected to do much of the ad production and opposition research on behalf of the former Florida governor, two quintessential campaign functions that are being effectively offloaded to the super PAC, even though it may not legally coordinate with Bush’s official campaign.
Similar arrangements have cropped up on the Democratic side, where Correct the Record, a super PAC founded by Hillary Clinton ally David Brock, is raising millions of dollars to function exactly like the rapid-response arm of a campaign would. Clinton is also supported by the Priorities USA Action super PAC, which announced that it had raised $15.6 million in the last six months.
All super PACs must file their donors to the FEC on July 31, giving the public the first detailed look at the groups beyond the fundraising totals self-reported to the media.
Candidates have already outraced the sums raised by this time in the 2012 election, the first presidential election to feature super PACs. In June 2011, Obama For America had raised $46 million, while Governor Mitt Romney’s campaign had raised $18 million. Romney’s super PAC, Restore Our Future, had raised $12 million by then. Though his campaign would go on to be one of the highest grossing in history, Romney’s combined total of $30 million would have placed him fourth in today’s field of Republican contenders.