“It’s just proven to be a vehicle for getting around contribution limits,” said Michael Malbin, a scholar at the Campaign Finance Institute, which advocates for regulations encouraging small donors. “It’s made for people who’ve already maxed out.”
Two years after the Supreme Court decided the landmark Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case, it is becoming clear that the super PACs created under the new rules will act as a counterweight to a rise in online grass-roots fundraising. The online efforts, which tend to attract small donations, have been driving unconventional contenders in the GOP field, including Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) and Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.). (Bachmann dropped out of the race last week after a sixth-place finish in Iowa.)
By contrast, super PACs, because they can pull in donations well above the $2,500 limit on donations to campaigns, are boosting establishment candidates who already rely on rich donors.
The Citizens United decision created a cascade of lower-court rulings, allowing for the creation of super PACs that can accept huge donations from individuals and corporations. Several of the groups active in this year’s race have already accepted many donations over $1 million from one person.
The advantage is likely to grow as the candidates move to the next round of primaries and caucuses, where they will be competing in bigger states and relying more on television advertising to reach voters.
Spending on television ads by groups independent of the campaigns is already five times what it was during the entire Republican primary season four years ago, according to estimates from Kantar Media/CMAG.
Romney has received $5 million in help from the super PAC founded by three former aides from his 2008 bid.
A group aiding Perry has spent $3.8 million on ads backing him, and Huntsman has benefited from $2.5 million worth of ads from a super PAC.
Combined, those three candidates are receiving 80 percent of all super PAC spending.
The super PACs helping Romney and Perry have spent more on television ads than the candidates themselves in recent weeks, according to Kantar’s estimates. Huntsman’s campaign just launched his first ad.
Paul and Bachmann received more than 60 percent of their money from donors giving less than $200. A super PAC helping Paul has spent $735,000 on Internet advertising. And a group that initially announced it was helping Bachmann went on to run $500,000 in ads for Romney.
While Newt Gingrich’s campaign was struggling in the summer, he relied more on smaller donors. As he gained steam, he received help from a super PAC founded by former aides. But the group’s late start appears to have been a problem: It has reported $1 million in spending so far.
Rick Santorum has benefited from about $755,000 in spending from two super PACs backing him.
Just as the Internet allowed candidates to raise money from small donors faster than they had through direct mail, the same is true for super PACs.
“You make a phone call and get a million dollars,” Malbin said.
The new wave of spending has also allowed some candidates to benefit from negative advertising while avoiding the blame for attacking fellow Republicans.
Campaign finance regulations passed by Congress in 2002 have a “stand by your ad” provision requiring candidates to appear on screen stating their approval of the spot. But rules prevent super PACs from coordinating the campaign operations, allowing candidates to say the ads are out of their control.
“It changes the dynamic for candidates who are more reliant on small donors,” said a Paul strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to talk freely. “You have two tiers of candidates: those with super PACs that can have negative messaging without having to take the heat for it, and those who have to do it themselves.”