×

Super PACs are spending early and often

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie
Getty Images
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie

Super PACs made their debut in the 2012 presidential election, but 2016 will be the year they get to show off their strength.

The Super PACs representing this year's batch of presidential hopefuls have already raised at least $240 million, and spent about $10 million on television commercials, mailing campaigns and other forms of outreach, according to the latest round of filings submitted to the Federal Election Commission by Friday morning.

That's far up from the last presidential election, when PACs had only spent about $330,000 at this point in the year. The fact that there were no Democratic primary challengers in 2012 didn't make much of a difference–most of the spending then and now came from Republican PACs.

Republican groups account for 93 percent of Super PAC funds raised so far this year, and nearly all independent expenditures. For the most part, all that money is going to make Republican candidates look better than their peers, but some has also been spent on preemptive campaigns against Hillary Clinton.

"I imagine that when the field feels very volatile, that's the time you would want to spend," said John Wonderlich, policy director at the Sunlight Foundation. "In the Republican field, the numbers are moving a lot."


This chart includes all independent expenditures reported by the monthly filing deadline on Friday morning (Thursday at midnight), as well as expenditures by political committees that spent an aggregate of over $10,000 in the last 48 hours or earlier. Some PACs opt into quarterly filings, and their expenditures will be included up to their last report on July 31.

At this point in 2012, only three groups had reported independent expenditures. The conservative group Campaign to Defeat Barack Obama had spent about $97,000 in emails and print and television advertising, and the tea party group Our Country Deserves Better PAC had put about $140,000 into its own media buys against the president. The Democratic PAC Priorities USA Action had spent about $96,000 against prospective candidate Mitt Romney in May.

So far this year, two dozen groups have spent about 30 times more fortifying their candidates against the crowded field. That could signal that not only are we seeing a trend towards more money being spent, but the campaign season could be getting longer as well, said Wonderlich.

"So much of the money is being fueled by a few very wealthy donors, and that really gives an advantage to the outside infrastructure," he said. "There has been a freeing psychological effect since Citizen's United, and it's been normalized."

The huge sums that will be raised by Super PACs this year could end up being a windfall for media, tech and production companies once campaigns get into full swing. Republicans and Democrats tend to rely equally on attack ads, so once a few more challengers enter from the left spending could accelerate from that side as well, said Wonderlich. Super PACs spent $609 million in total in 2012, according to OpenSecrets.org.

Aside from a conservative group that has been attacking Mike Huckabee for years and attack ads leveled by Democratic candidate Martin O'Malley's Super PAC against Bernie Sanders, all Super PAC attacks so far have been across party lines.

We'll see how long that lasts.