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Rise of the Super PACs in American politics

Marian WangProPublica

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The Federal Election Commission, which regulates the flow of political cash, has been plagued by persistent gridlock on some key areas of campaign finance.

Why’s that important? Because as we explain, more money is coming in and much of it is flowing in through new and barely regulated groups.

Take a look at these charts -- found in a report [PDF] recently released by the commission -- that shine a spotlight on independent spending, or spending that’s technically not coordinated with candidates and their campaigns:

What’s striking here is that independent spending by “PACs, Groups and Individuals” more than quadrupled.  Similar spending by parties stayed roughly the same. The data, which was compiled by the agency, is just another indication that the significance of traditional party committees is shrinking in the rapidly changing campaign-finance landscape, eclipsed by new groups that can take in unlimited amounts to fund ads. (The other category in the chart, “electioneering communications,” represents what are known as “issue ads” that don’t explicitly endorse or oppose candidates. Spending on those ads stayed at around $80 million compared to 2008.)

Another graph from the FEC breaks down that spending a little further. Setting aside the party committees that cut back on their independent spending in 2010, it shows that while traditional PACs have increased their independent spending somewhat, a more substantial increase was from other groups and from the rise of super PACs, which started forming in 2010 after several court rulings opened the door to unlimited corporate and union donations.

Super PACs, as we’ve noted, can take unlimited donations so long as they’re not coordinating their spending with campaigns. Though these groups have grown in number and influence since the last election cycle, the FEC has yet to issue any rules that specifically address them and has only issued advisory opinions — which have neither the force of law nor regulation — giving guidance on what they’re allowed to do.

Individual donors along with other groups — nonprofit 501(c)s ranging from unions to trade groups to so-called “social welfare” groups like Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS — can also make independent, non-coordinated expenditures and took full advantage of this last cycle. They spent more than $70 million.

Campaign-finance watchers estimate that independent spending in the 2012 cycle will blow away what was seen in 2010, especially given that it’s also a presidential election year. If the FEC’s data is any indication, the super PACs and other nonprofit groups will be the ones to watch.

At the moment, while fundraising is in full swing, the spending is just starting. Here’s a look at some of the ads that both Democrat- and Republican-leaning super PACs and 501(c) groups have already started rolling out with the money that has come in. A few examples...

 

Republican-allied Crossroads GPS, a 501(c)(4), just rolled out an ad attacking President Obama this week

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A pro-Obama super PAC launched an attack ad against GOP candidate Mitt Romney last week:

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And Make Us Great Again, a pro-Rick Perry super PAC, rolled out its first ads last week:

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This report was originally published by ProPublica and is republished here with permission.