If money equals speech, then in the U.S. presidential race right now it's millionaires and billionaires who are doing most of the talking.
The campaign fundraising efforts of the 22 major declared or all-but-declared contenders are coming into focus this week as campaigns and related groups disclose the amounts they've raised so far, and the numbers point to a historic shift. For the first time in decades, contributions of unlimited size from deep-pocketed donors—as much as $6 million from a single person—are eclipsing the amounts raised from thousands of smaller contributors.
Today is the day when most candidates are required to disclose to the Federal Election Commission the fundraising totals for their official campaigns if they haven't already done so. Super-PACs don't have to report until the end of the month, although many of them have already allowed their numbers to trickle out, along with the names of some of the biggest contributors.
The Republican primary, where 17 candidates are seeking the party's nomination, may end up being financed mostly by a handful of wealthy donors. Some $235 million has been raised by super-PACs and other unlimited-contribution groups backing particular GOP candidates, a still-incomplete tally shows, compared with only $58 million raised in smaller amounts by the campaigns themselves.
“Outside money has been taken to a new level, beyond, I think, anybody's reasonable expectations,” said Kenneth Gross, a political-law partner at Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom who has counseled campaigns for both parties.
With the exception of Donald Trump, a billionaire who has said he plans to pay his own way, every major Republican contender has an allied outside group working on his or her behalf. By comparison, at this point in 2011, only one of the 12 Republican contenders had a super-PAC. That was Mitt Romney, whose super-PAC's $12 million haul was less than the $18 million raised by his official campaign at that point. Super-PACs never represented more than a small fraction of the total spending in the race.
American elections are being transformed by a series of court rulings, including the Supreme Court's 2010 decision in Citizens United, which loosened decades-old limits on money in politics by declaring that political spending was a form of speech protected by the First Amendment. For proponents of the changes, the current fundraising cycle is a sign of a reinvigorated democracy, and may help explain why so many candidates are throwing their hats in the ring.
“More speech freedom means more candidates, and more choices for voters,” said the Center for Competitive Politics' David Keating, who helped bring about another key court decision, Speechnow V. FEC, that laid the groundwork for super-PACs in 2010. “We may end up with best informed primary electorate ever.”
But Gross called the prominence of the outside groups “unhealthy” to the system. “Candidates who are not viable can be propped up by a handful of donors,” he said.
Thanks to the court rulings, super-PACs can raise unlimited amounts from individuals and corporations, and can spend money directly on campaign advocacy, as long as they don't coordinate spending with a candidate. (Direct campaign contributions are still limited to $5,400 between the primary and general election.) Although some super-PACs were around in the 2012 race, they were newer and campaign lawyers were cautious about using them. This time around, they are not only starting earlier and with better funding, but in some cases they are taking over functions traditionally handled by campaigns, such as fielding press inquiries and organizing volunteers in early primary states.
The head of the PACs so far is Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, who founded and raised millions for his super-PAC months before he officially declared his candidacy. The PAC's $103 million haul is about 9 times what his actual campaign has raised.
Bush faces a field of GOP contenders with similarly deep-pocketed backers. Groups backing Scott Walker, the Wisconsin governor, and Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz have all indicated they've got $25 million or more to spend.
“In the era of super-PACs, as long as you have even just one or two donors who are willing to write large checks to support a candidate, that may be enough to keep a candidate in the race,” said Anthony Corrado, a professor of government at Colby College in Maine. He said this year's Republican field is the largest for either party since at least the 1970s.
The story is different on the Democratic side, where front-runner Hillary Clinton has focused her fundraising efforts on her official campaign. She's raised $45 million, compared with about $24 million gathered by allied outside groups. Bernie Sanders has discouraged super-PACs from backing his campaign and has raised about $15 million through traditional means.
Former hedge-fund manager George Soros, the media mogul Haim Saban, and the DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg are among those mentioned in media reports as having written large checks to groups backing Clinton. The Florida car dealer Norman Braman, the pipeline billionaire Kelcy Warren, and the hedge-fund executive Robert Mercer are among those said to be already backing various Republicans.
The only Republican candidate unlikely to be dependent on outside money is Trump, the real-estate mogul and television personality who pegs his own net worth at almost $9 billion. “I'm not using donors,” he said when he declared as a candidate last month. “I don't care. I'm really rich.”