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Super PACs: FEC report sheds light on powerful influence of a few big donors (+video)

A strikingly few wealthy donors were the main 2011 contributors to super PACs, which analysts see as the main force behind a flood of negative campaign ads.

By Staff writer / February 1, 2012

Las Vegas Sands Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson and wife Miriam Ochsorn seen in Hong Kongon June 7, 2011. Super PACs filed financial reports on Tuesday that showed how much they had raised and spent as of December 31, 2011. Since the cutoff date of the filing, the pro-Gingrich PAC has received $10 million in donations from billionaire casino mogul Adelson and his wife, Miriam.

Bobby Yip/Reuters/File

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Washington

The advent of super PACs has allowed a few hundred political donors – many from finance, energy, real estate, or gambling – to emerge as a powerful force in the 2012 presidential race by becoming the primary funders of negative ad campaigns.

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Reports filed with the Federal Election Commission on Tuesday give the first detailed account of how unlimited individual, corporate, and union donations are affecting the 2012 presidential race.

While individuals are limited to $2,500 contributions to candidate campaigns, key checks for the fledgling super PACs came in $250,000, $500,000, or $1 million increments, totaling $47.8 million in 2011, according to the FEC.

But what’s most striking in the FEC disclosures is how few donors are actually behind super PACs out to promote or tear down individual candidates.

“Very few donations and huge amounts of money – that’s the pattern of super PACs,” says Bill Allison, a senior analyst with the Sunlight Foundation, a watchdog group in Washington that tracks super PACS and advocates for transparency.

While banned from coordinating with the candidates they back, super PACs – a new breed of political action committees enabled by recent court decisions to spend unlimited funds on behalf of, or in opposition to, candidates – have become the dark arm of the GOP primary race, taking on much of the negative campaigning and giving candidates plausible deniability for the blowback.

A small group of wealthy donors has already played a decisive role in the GOP presidential primary, analysts say, and could also help offset a powerful White House advantage in campaign fundraising for the general election in November.

To date, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has been the main beneficiary of unlimited corporate giving. Restore Our Future, Inc., a super PAC backing Romney, picked up more than $30 million in contributions in 2011, mainly from financial industry executives and hedge-fund managers. Restore Our Future, Inc. spent $17.5 million to date, mainly on television ads attacking former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

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