Who will win the GOP nomination? Can the president overcome the bad economy? Precisely how much money will each party spend? These questions are still up in the air, but what is clear is that the 2012 election is set to be the most expensive in history.
The price tag on presidential victory is expected to be in the billions this cycle, higher than ever before. While some credit the internet for creating an easy donation platform, others point the finger at the new guy on the campaign finance block: Super PACs.
“Super PACs are a different animal,” said Michael Toner, the former chairman of the Federal Elections Commission. “They have really come onto the scene in the last year or so and are really going to ramp up in the 2012 election.”
Super PACs, unlike traditional political action committees, can collect an unlimited amount of money from any source — corporations, labor unions, individuals — but are barred from coordinating with a particular campaign, although they can advocate for a candidate.
The 2010 election was the first time such groups played a role, following a Supreme Court decision last year that struck down prior laws prohibiting corporations from expressly advocating for or against political candidates.
Super PACs spent more than $65 million in the 2012 midterm elections, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That number is expected to increase by a power of 10 for the 2012 election.
“In many ways 2010 was a trial run for Super PACs, a warm-up election for this kind of activity,” Toner said. “In 2012 we are going to see the full flowering of Super PAC spending.”
As of Sept. 30, Romney had raised about $32 million, about $15 million more than the next highest GOP fundraiser, Rick Perry. President Obama has so far outraised Romney nearly 3 to 1, pulling in more than $40 million in the third quarter alone.
But while the Romney campaign got trampled by the Obama campaign in fundraising, the Super PAC that supports Romney helped even the playing field. Restore Our Future has hauled in about $12 million so far this year while the Obama-supporting Priorities USA Action raised about $3 million.
“Super PACs will become more important to candidates, particularly on the Republican side because Republican candidates will be in a position where they have already been spending a lot of their war chest on attacking candidates in the primary race,” said Brad Smith, the chairman of the Center for Competitive Politics.
Perhaps one of the largest GOP-supporting Super PACs, American Crossroads, and its sister non-profit group, Crossroads GPS, are aiming to raise $240 million to help the Republican candidate win the nomination, said Jonathan Collegio, the groups’ spokesman.
Together American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS have already spent a combined $20 million in 2011, Collegio said. The bulk of that spending was for television ads during the debt limit debate and opposing President Obama’s proposed “millionaire’s tax.”
On the Democrat side, Priorities USA Action was formed in April to boost President Obama’s re-election. Together with their non-profit branch, the group plans to raise about $100 million to “match what folks on the far right are trying to do,” said the group’s co-founder Bill Burton, a former Obama spokesman.
While Super PACs are required to report their donors to the FEC, non-profit groups don’t have to play by those same rules. They can collected unlimited funds from anonymous donors, as long as they dedicate more than half of their budget to a social welfare purpose.
Toner said most of the sophisticated independent groups, such as American Crossroads and Priorities USA, are creating hybrid organizations, with both a registered Super PAC and a non-profit, or 501 c4 organization.
That way they can raise money from donors who want to remain anonymous, but only part of whose donations can be used for pointed political ads, and they can also pull money from named donors, 100 percent of which can flow into “vote for candidate X” – style ads.