This story is from the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative media organization in Washington, D.C. Read more of its investigations on the influence of money in politics or follow it on Twitter.
The 2016 White House race is well on its way to being the most expensive in history.
Presidential candidates and the political groups supporting them combined to raise more than $837 million during 2015, driven by a massive influx of cash to big-money super PACs, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of new campaign finance filings.
The new filings show that Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clintonand Bernie Sanders, as well as Republican contenders Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, ranked among candidates whose campaigns raised the most impressive sums in 2015. This effectively ensures they’ll remain in the presidential race long past Monday’s Iowa caucuses.
Super PACs backing GOP presidential contenders raised one-third more cash last year than the candidates’ own committees — a significant departure from four years ago, when GOP presidential candidates outraised their supportive super PACs by more than 3-to-1.
Federal regulators sanctioned super PACs in 2010 following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling and a lower court decision. They’re supposed to avoid coordinating their spending with politicians they support, but many nevertheless are closely tied.
The result: The presidential campaign is now a super PAC-fueled arms race where almost everyone has a money bomb.
Some political observers say the increased flow of big money into political campaigns has helped give voters more choices and information. But others fret that wealthy donors have hijacked elections, distorted the public policy process and skewed politicians’ priorities.
“Super PACs likely encouraged more candidates to get into the 2016 GOP presidential race,” said Jay Goodliffe, a political science professor at Brigham Young University. “Even if their polls were not initially good, or there were other setbacks, the super PAC could help keep them afloat.”
But the widespread embrace of super PACs isn’t shared by Adam Lioz, a policy advisor at the left-leaning think tank Demos.
“Your success and your longevity as a candidate should depend upon the people you can rally to your cause,” Lioz said — not a few people writing “million-dollar checks.”
He continued: “People are tired of being bombarded by ads, especially when they know that those ads are paid for by the ‘one percent.’”
Mighty super PAC can’t buy Bush love
Here’s what super PACs aren’t this presidential election: A silver bullet for any candidate.
Take Right to Rise USA, the super PAC supporting former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, which has raised and spent more money than any other super PAC active in the 2016 presidential race.
Despite this, Bush has languished in the polls. The last poll sponsored by the Des Moines Register ahead of Monday night’s caucuses showed Bush earning just 2 percent of the expected vote.
Most of Right to Rise USA’s $118 million haul was collected before Bush officially announced his candidacy and while Bush himself was traveling the country helping the super PAC raise funds.
Documents filed Sunday show the pro-Bush super PAC’s largest donor during the fourth quarter of 2015 was C.V. Starr & Co., a financial firm headed by Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, the former chairman and CEO of insurance giant AIG. The company donated $10 million in October.
Another major donor is the Oklahoma-based firm Rooney Holdings, which has given $2.3 million to Right to Rise USA. The company’s president and CEO — L. Francis Rooney III — is a veteran GOP fundraiser and served as President George W. Bush’s ambassador to Vatican City.
Thanks, in part, to the financial largess of such wealthy supporters, Right to Rise USA raised more than three times as much cash as Bush’s own campaign last year.
Right to Rise USA has spent more than $60 million to date. Most of that money has been targeting voters in the critical early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, which conduct their presidential nominating contests in February.
In fact, the pro-Bush super PAC has accounted for more than one of every four TV ads sponsored during the GOP presidential primary, according to a Center for Public Integrity review of data provided by Kantar Media/CMAG, a firm that monitors broadcast TV ads as well as those on national — but not local — cable.
Trump, a billionaire real estate mogul and reality TV star, raised less money last year than most of his rivals: $19 million, including nearly $13 million of his own funds. Yet Trump has benefited from his unique celebrity status, coupled with endless — and free — media coverage.
While Trump initially vowed to self-fund his campaign, he’s also raised nearly $6.6 million from other donors. About 75 percent of that sum has come from small-dollar donors giving $200 or less.
Super PAC cash dwarfs GOP candidates’ war chests
Bush isn’t the only presidential candidate who’s witnessed a supportive super PAC outraise his own campaign.
The pro-Christie super PAC America Leads raised $16 million last year, while Christie’s own campaign raised about $7.2 million.
And a pair of pro-Kasich super PACs called New Day for America and New Day Independent Media Committee combined to raise nearly $18 million in 2015, while Kasich’s own campaign collected about $7.6 million.
These super PACs have largely directed their advertising barrages on New Hampshire, where Kasich and Christie are hoping a potential victory over Rubio, a U.S. senator from Florida, would help garner them both momentum and support from the Republican Party’s establishment wing.
Rubio’s own campaign raised about $33 million in 2015, while his main supportive super PAC — called the Conservative Solutions PAC — raised $30 million. A separate pro-Rubio nonprofit that doesn’t disclose its donorsannounced last summer that it had raised about $16 million — of which it hasspent at least $8.5 million on TV ads.
Tucker Martin, a spokesman for America Leads, said the super PAC’s ad buys have been successful in bringing Christie’s message “directly to voters in their living rooms.”
Conservative Solutions PAC spokesman Jeffrey Sadosky said his group’s “air cover has been incredibly important,” especially as Rubio has become increasingly under attack.
Connie Wehrkamp, a spokeswoman for the pro-Kasich super PACs, did not respond to a request for comment.
Jeffrey Peck, a top Democratic lobbyist in Washington, D.C., at the firm Peck Madigan Jones, told the Center for Public Integrity that “the need for money breeds the need for more money.”
He added: “If you are in a race where your competitors have tremendous amounts of super PAC money being spent, then for you to be competitive, you need to do the same thing.”
Meanwhile, a network of eight separate super PACs has formed to support the presidential bid of Cruz, the U.S. senator from Texas. These groups — one of which has already disbanded — combined to raise more than $42 million in 2015.
For its part, Cruz’s campaign collected $47 million last year — more money than any other Republican candidate save retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who raised $54 million but burned through nearly 90 percent of that sum.
Cruz entered 2016 with nearly $19 million in the bank — more than any other GOP campaign. Megadonors supporting his bid include hedge fund managerRobert Mercer, businessman Toby Neugebauer and the Wilks family of Texas, who made its fortune in the fracking business.
Larry Levy, the lawyer of the Mercer-funded Keep the Promise I super PAC, which raised $11 million last year, said his super PAC was helping to “engage voters” and provide “positive reasons on why Sen. Cruz would make the best candidate.”
In addition to TV ads, Levy said Keep the Promise I has made significant investments in radio ads, digital ads and field organizers.
“Super PACs, when they started, were just advertising machines,” he said. “We’ve been something different."
Democrats battle with big money
While super PACs have dominated the TV airwaves in the GOP presidential race, such groups have so far played a much lesser role for the Democrats.
Just don’t expect it to stay that way.
Clinton’s super PAC cavalry is already ready in the wings: The main super PACs supporting her raised nearly $48 million last year. So far the groups have spent less than $13 million.
Moreover, the largest of these groups, Priorities USA Action, raised an additional $10 million in January and has secured more than $40 million in pledges, according to the New York Times.
Might Priorities USA Action jump into the fray against Sanders if the U.S. senator from Vermont wins Iowa, New Hampshire or both?
“We will continue to work as hard as we can to elect Hillary Clinton president throughout the primary season and into the general,” said Justin Barasky, the spokesman for Priorities USA Action.
“We’re the only super PAC right now that isn’t being forced to spend heavily and that speaks to the strength of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy,” he continued.
Priorities USA Action’s largest donors include billionaires George Soros, who gave $7 million last year, as well as Haim and Cheryl Saban, who each gave $2.5 million. Financiers Donald Sussman and Herbert Sandler also each gave $2.5 million to Priorities USA Action last year.
These five megadonors accounted for 40 percent of the $41 million Priorities USA Action raised.
Like her supportive super PAC, Clinton’s campaign has also relied more heavily on wealthy patrons. In 2015, about 16 percent of the $116 million Clinton raised campaign from people who gave $200 or less.
For his part, Sanders, who is neck-and-neck with Clinton in most recent polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, has relied overwhelmingly on grassroots donors to build his own big-money political machine.
In 2015, Sanders raised about $75 million. More than 70 percent of that sum came from small-dollar donors giving $200 or less.
Unlike Clinton, Sanders has disavowed super PACs, though, he has benefited from about $1 million in spending by a super PAC of a national nurses labor union.
Meanwhile, Martin O’Malley holds the distinction of being the only candidate so far to qualify for country’s nearly obsolete public finance system. He raised $4.8 million last year. His supportive super PAC only collected about $800,000.
The last major presidential candidate to participate in the public financing system was Republican John McCain in 2008. Because of that system’s spending limits, McCain was easily outspent by Democrat Barack Obama.
Clinton, Sanders and O’Malley have each touted campaign finance reform plans designed to curb the influence of super PACs and overturn the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling.
Several of the Republican presidential contenders, on the other hand, have called for the elimination of campaign contribution limits as a way to steer more money back to candidates instead of super PACs.
Alex Cohen and Chris Zubak-Skees contributed to this report.
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