Friday’s super PAC mid-year filing deadline gave the public its first detailed look into the outside groups fueling 2016 presidential candidates — and they look to be playing an even more outsized role in the race than ever.
Overall, independent expenditure groups have raised $301.8 million already, more than six times the rate seen in the contentious 2014 cycle, and 11 times more than the 2012 cycle. More than two of every three dollars raised for presidential candidates this cycle are going to super PACs and other outside groups not subject to $2,700-per-election contribution limits.
Data from Sunlight’s Real-Time Federal Campaign Finance tracker show that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush dramatically outpaced his competitors in fundraising from outside groups, raising $108 million from two supporting super PACs. The next highest amount was the $38 million raised for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz through a network of four affiliated super PACs. Three supporting super PACs for Hillary Clinton raised $21.9 million.
Super PACs can accept unlimited donations, including from corporations and unions, but must disclose their donors and other financial information to the Federal Election Commission.
The 2012 presidential race was the first in the post-Citizens United era, but six months into 2011, super PACs weren’t the force they are now. Overall, major candidates had raised $94 million by June 2011, with 16 percent of that directed to outside groups. Compare that to the $400 million already raised, with 68 percent kept in outside, nominally independent, hands.
Only two candidates, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, even had established super PACs by June 2011, though most major candidates eventually attracted the support of one. Romney’s super PAC, Restore Our Future, reported raising $12.2 million in its first mid-year report, while Obama’s Priorities USA Action raised $3.2 million.
By this point in the 2012 election, there were only 5 donors who had given $1 million or more. In this cycle, there are at least 60.
More money is being raised, and it’s going to an increasing number of these outside groups. Consider, for example, the number of super PACs that had raised $1 million by this time: In 2012, there were just six. In 2014, there were 15. Now, there are 35 — the majority of which support a single presidential candidate.
Large dollars, few donors
Though super PAC spending appears likely to outpace direct donations to candidates, much of the money is coming from seven- and even eight-figure donations. While candidates in previous elections had to rely on collecting funds from a large number of donors to run expensive primary operations like field mobilization, opposition research and television ad buys, a single wealthy donor can buoy a candidate’s operations for months.
Ted Cruz, who has at least four super PACs supporting him, had $37.8 million raised for his campaign, the result of an $11 million donation by New York hedge fund manager Robert Mercer, a $10 million donation by Toby Neugebauer, a Texas private equity giant, and $15 million from the Wilks family, fracking industry billionaires.
Jeb Bush’s main super PAC, Right to Rise, received million-dollar donations from 24 people and corporations. Though an earlier press release touted the fact that 9,400 of its 9,900 donors gave less than $25,000, they only accounted for 10 percent of the total raised.
Hillary Clinton’s main super PAC, Priorities USA Action, raised most of its $15.7 million from nine donors who gave $1 million each, including director Steven Spielberg and billionaire George Soros. Soros also gave $1 million to another super PAC supporting Clinton.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who recently entered the race, is supported by Unintimidated PAC, which reported raising $20 million. The top four donors to the group accounted for $12.7 million, or 65 percent, of the total.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s super PAC, Conservative Solutions, reported raising $16 million, including $5 million from Miami auto dealer and longtime Rubio-backer Norman Barman and $3 million from Oracle chair Larry Ellison.