The flow of funds is part of a wave of spending by outside groups — particularly super PACs, which have few limits on their activities — that has quickly come to dominate the 2012 presidential contest.
But unlike super PACs, politically minded nonprofit groups are under no obligation to disclose the corporations, unions or wealthy tycoons bankrolling their advertising, much of which is almost indistinguishable from regular political ads run by campaigns.
The result is a race heavily influenced by such organizations and their funders, who will remain largely in the shadows.
“I don’t think we’ve seen these kind of groups acting so aggressively in election-related activity as we see now,” said Richard Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California at Irvine. “This is pure secret money. . . . The goal is to avoid disclosure.”
Nonprofit “social welfare” organizations and other tax-exempt groups with confidential donors have spent more than $24 million in the 2012 cycle on political ads naming President Obama or, less frequently, his Republican rivals, according to a Washington Post analysis of data supplied by Kantar Media-CMAG, which tracks ad spending. That accounts for about 40 percent of the money estimated to have been spent on advertising related to the presidential candidates.
Crossroads GPS, a nonprofit group backed by GOP political guru Karl Rove, has spent more than $10 million on ads targeting Obama over the federal deficit, energy policies and other issues in the 2012 cycle. American Crossroads, a sister group registered as a super PAC, has spent just $133,000 on such ads, the data show.
The disparity means that nearly all of the broadcast messages that voters have encountered from the Crossroads groups were paid for by persons unknown. The super PAC side of the operation reported taking in $18.2 million in 2011, including $7 million from Texas billionaire Harold Simmons and his company; the nonprofit side raised almost twice as much from unidentified donors.
For donors, ‘a choice’
Spokesman Jonathan Collegio said Crossroads GPS is no different than tens of thousands of other nonprofits, from ideological groups to charities, that are entitled to keep their contributors confidential.
“Private organizations don’t have to disclose their donor lists to the government at their beck and call,” Collegio said. “Those who want to support the Crossroads groups have a choice of whether they want to give to a more political- or issue-oriented effort, and they make their decisions according to their tastes and preferences.”