After two 2010 court rulings took the shackles off political fund-raising and spending, critics predicted American election campaigns would be determined by faceless billionaires unleashing gushers of cash to pay for television advertisements.
But so far this year, the ultra-rich have spent massive sums on super PACs and television advertising only to watch their chosen candidates fall by the wayside.
Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, beneficiary of more than $50 million in super PAC spending, has faced a far stiffer test than expected from US Senator Bernie Sanders, who has subsisted largely on small-dollar donors. Among Republicans, front-running businessman Donald Trump has received minimal super PAC backing and spent little — propelling his campaign largely on his outsize personality and the media coverage it spurs. Jeb Bush, scion of the preeminent American political dynasty and widely liked by the Republican establishment, faltered despite a super PAC dedicated to his cause collecting more than $100 million.
Campaign veterans say the 2016 race has made one thing clear: There’s only so much help outside money can provide to candidates who have trouble connecting with voters, whatever the reason.
“If you think that having a super PAC gives you permission not to engage or confront a candidate onstage, that’s a deeply mistaken impression,” said Stuart Stevens, chief strategist of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign and a frequent critic of the Right to Rise super PAC that sought to augment Bush’s effort. “And the odd thing with Jeb was he was engaged, but he wasn’t backed up by the super PAC.”
As of March 15, super PACs, which can raise unlimited sums and are forbidden by law from directly coordinating with candidates’ campaigns, reported $549 million in receipts and nearly $258 million in independent expenditures, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. The political value of much of that spending remains an open question.
There are still financial juggernauts on the sidelines — industrialists Charles and David Koch and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, for instance — who could play critical roles in the general election, once the fog of primary season clears.
“When we get to the general election, you will see huge amounts of money from the super rich supporting the nominee,” said Fred Wertheimer, founder of Democracy 21, a nonpartisan government transparency group.
And good-government groups point out that deep-pocketed financiers can still wield tremendous influence in down-ballot elections, where their money goes further.
“If it’s Donald Trump or Ted Cruz, my guess is that a substantial share of the $800 or $900 million amassed by the Koch brothers and their allies will be used in House and Senate races, and that will have an impact,” said Norman J. Ornstein, a political scientist at the American Enterprise Institute. The Kochs have signaled their intent to stay on the sidelines of the presidential race for now.
But massive amounts of money from super PACs have already been funneled into this year’s presidential election during the primary season, and Sanders and Trump have nonetheless continued to thrive. (Sanders, despite his denouncements of super PACs, does have the backing of a super PAC affiliated with a national union of nurses, which has spent modestly on his behalf.)
Part of their success is due to voters’ attraction to outsiders, the very type of candidate less likely to receive financial largesse from the very wealthy.
And some of it owes to how pervasive money has become in the system. According to a study released last week by Smart Media Group, a Virginia-based political media buying firm that uses software known as SMG Data, spending by outside groups has spiked this cycle from 2012. Overall spending on ads, driven largely by the historic size of the Republican field, has hit $308 million, an increase of 221 percent over the same point in the last presidential election.
Of that sum, 63 percent of the spending has come from outside groups, compared with 37 percent by individual candidates and their campaigns, roughly the same split as four years ago.
Similar to 2012, which was the first presidential election following the court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling that unfettered campaign finance, one of the primary roles of super PACs has been to prolong the viability of candidates who, under the previous system, likely would have been bounced from the race months earlier.
The Supreme Court’s decision essentially found that the preexisting prohibition on independent political expenditures from corporations and unions amounted to a violation of free speech. By a 5-4 vote, the court dramatically redrew the way the public receives its political information — and who brings it to them.
A subsequent appeals court decision held that political action committees that did not make direct contributions to political candidates or parties could accept unlimited contributions from individuals, unions, and corporations.
The effect on the 2012 presidential election became clear during the GOP primary. While former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney worked to quell the concerns of movement conservatives who doubted his principles, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and former House speaker Newt Gingrich dogged him for months, sustained largely by wealthy benefactors augmenting their campaigns with super PACs.
“What used to happen was the winnowing-out process was really a ruthless one,” Ornstein said. “Now, if you have a billionaire or two who can handle the advertising, you’re still going to need some money . . . but the needs are much less and the ability to compete is much greater.”
But some of those deep-pocketed donors must be left wondering about the efficacy of those ads, particularly when outside groups like super PACs pay higher rates for their TV ads than do the candidates’ campaigns.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics figures, the Conservative Solutions PAC collected $56 million and spent $33 million in support of US Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, only to watch him lose his home state and end his campaign. Wealthy donors largely jump-started Cruz’s campaign through a super PAC — one of a cluster that support him — that, by last June, claimed to have collected $37 million. Ohio Governor John Kasich’s super PAC has spent over $10 million. And both Cruz and Kasich are significantly behind Trump.
The Right to Rise PAC, which backed Bush, stands alone as a historic failure. After raising over $118 million — much of it from financial services and energy executives — the group, run by a longtime Bush adviser and staffed by loyalists, spent over $81 million. Bush dropped out after finishing fourth in the Feb. 20 South Carolina primary, which Trump won easily.
In all, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, the group spent just a little over $25,000 specifically in opposition to Trump.
On the other side of the ledger, Trump has enjoyed seemingly unprecedented advantages. A New York Times study last week based on mediaQuant and SMG Delta data found that Trump had earned more free media coverage than the rest of the GOP field combined, more than six times more than Cruz, and 250 percent more than Clinton.
Even as Republicans gather resources to counter the man who is now the front-runner to carry their party’s standard in the fall, some question why their party did not mobilize more quickly.
“It’s just that all of this was too late. I think of the ‘Guns of August,’ said Stuart Stevens, chief strategist on Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, referring to the book that described the events leading up to World War I. “This confluence of events that led to catastrophe.”