Even months away from November's presidential Election Day, the emergence of big money-fueled super PACs has left an indelible mark on the 2012 landscape. Though changes in campaign finance law thanks to the Supreme Court ruling in the Citizen United case were expected to impact how American campaigns are conducted, there have still been some surprises, experts say. And recently published federal campaign finance reports have renewed focus on the volume of money pouring into the super PACs.
"The big surprise is the outsized influence they've had so early in the presidential process," says Anthony Corrado, government professor at Colby College and national expert in campaign finance. He says "the extent to which these candidate specific PACs have formed and show the capacity to quickly raise money from a few donors" was unexpected.
The court ruling allowed for individuals, companies, and unions to donate unlimited amounts of money to independent groups advocating for candidates as long as the spending is not coordinated with the individual's campaign. Donations directly to the candidate's coffers are limited to $2,500 a person.
"Consequently, it creates an option for those who in past elections might have acted as bundlers, responsible for raising money for a campaign, who find that it's much easier to just write a check for $100,000 to the super PAC than to raise $100,000 for the campaign," Corrado says. "Giving to the super PAC has become yet another way that wealthy supporters can exercise financial influence."
A direct result of the new landscape is that candidacies that might have died out due to lack of financing can continue on, carried on the backs of a few wealthy donors.
Michael Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute and professor of political science at the University at Albany, SUNY, says this is a result of the leniency of federal regulators, not a result of the court decision.
"The most surprising development this campaign, to my eyes, was the appearance of the single-candidate super PAC. There's nothing about Citizens United that compels that outcome," he says. "This is coming about because of very flexible interpretations of what is an independent expenditure and what is an independent group."
While former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Texas Rep. Ron Paul have shown a strong capacity to keep their own GOP presidential campaigns well financed, others such as former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich have been buoyed by outside spending.
"If you look at particularly Gingrich and Santorum, in the month of January both of those candidates had less than $2 million in the bank and had debts accumulate that were almost the equivalent to the amount of cash they had available to spend," Corrado says. "In the past that was a formula for a candidate being forced to make a tough decision about getting out of the race because they just couldn't continue on financially. And what has happened this year is that the candidates have been able to carry on because the major expense of the campaign, the advertising, can be carried on by the super PAC."
Now, candidates just need to raise enough money to pay a bare bones campaign staff and travel for the candidate and they can stay in the hunt. And the topsy-turvy nature of a GOP race that has witnessed a handful of different front-runners and so far three different candidates winning primaries has kept interested millionaire and billionaire donors digging deeper and deeper into their pockets.
"The donors who are taking the lead in financing these super PACs are multimillionaires and billionaires who are willing to spend substantial sums in support of their preferred candidate," Corrado says. "So it is a very small group, but they have an ability to continue to finance a campaign for some time. If you look at these campaigns moving into February, the bulk of the cash was in the bank accounts of super PACs, not candidates."