I can't get no voter traction.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer

Big Money in Politics Was a Bust in 2015

Paula Dwyer writes editorials on economics, finance and politics for Bloomberg View. She was London bureau chief for Businessweek and Washington economics editor for the New York Times, and is a co-author of “Take on the Street: How to Fight for Your Financial Future.”
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Throughout 2015, we kept hearing warnings that wealthy individuals would dominate the presidential election, and perhaps even influence the outcome, all because of court-made changes in campaign-finance law that allowed unlimited contributions and spending.  

So why did Big Money in politics end up to be a big bust in 2015? 

Super PACs -- political action committees that can accept unlimited amounts from just about anyone but can't coordinate with the candidate -- have been spending money, yet have little to show for it. 

Other dark-money sources -- essentially nonprofit social-welfare groups that don't have to disclose their donors -- had financed fewer than 20 percent of the television advertisements that ran through Dec. 9, according to a recent study.  And almost all of those ads were for Marco Rubio.      

The overall picture could change, of course, as the primary contests approach or once the general-election campaign begins next summer. 

This year, however, the more the outsiders spent, the lower their candidates' poll numbers went, according to a study published on Dec. 15 by the Center for Responsive Politics. The research, which the watchdog group conducted with the Wesleyan Media Project, showed that super PACs had sponsored 81 percent of the TV ads in the presidential primaries through Dec. 9. 

Among the top-tier Republicans, Jeb Bush illustrates the gap between spending and popularity. He was the Republican Establishment's early choice and top fundraiser. His super PAC, Right to Rise USA, raked in bundles of cash: $103 million through the 2015 third quarter. By comparison, Bush's actual campaign raised only about $25 million.

Having spent $44 million on thousands of television ads and dozens of direct-mail and other promotional efforts, Bush is registering about 5 percent nationally in the polls. All that outsider money failed to give him any traction in 2015.

Chris Christie's situation is similar. His more than $11 million in super-PAC money far exceeds the $4 million that individuals have donated to his official campaign. But the outsider money has done him little good: After spending more than $5 million on TV ads, putting Christie behind only Bush and Rubio in outsider spending, he's polling in ninth place in Iowa and, as of now, a distant fourth in New Hampshire. 

Contrast Bush and Christie with Donald Trump, who, unlike his competitors, accepts no money from special interests. He is his own sugar daddy, having lent his campaign $1.8 million (and implying he'll make lots more available if needed). Trump has also raised nearly $4 million from some 74,000 individuals. The average donation was $50 and all of it was unsolicited, Trump says. Despite spending a mere $6 million through September (he benefits immensely from free publicity),  Trump has been the leading Republican in most national polls since summer.  

Even Ted Cruz fits the pattern, so far. True, he has raised more money than any of the GOP candidates except Bush -- $39 million through super PACs and $27 million through his campaign, for a combined $65 million as of Sept. 30. But, according to the Wesleyan report, Cruz and his super-PAC allies spent only about $300,000 on 457 TV ads. Compare that with Bush's 15,750 ads. And yet Cruz recently surpassed Trump for the lead in Iowa polls.    

On the Democratic side, front-runner Hillary Clinton's official campaign has outraised her super PAC by four to one. She appears to be getting little out of the dark-money spigot. As of Sept. 30, her main outside groups had raised $20 million, while her own campaign had raised $77 million.  

The No. 2 Democrat, Bernie Sanders, has no super PAC and spends little time fundraising, yet is awash in cash from more than 1 million small-dollar donors, most of whom contributed online.

If elected, Sanders promises to overturn the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision, so naturally he forswears super-PAC fundraising. Yet he has raised more than $41 million -- a large sum for a socialist with little chance of becoming president.

Perhaps the candidates have discovered that super PACs aren't so super and prefer that donors send checks to their official campaign coffers instead. Election rules, after all, require that campaigns use only regulated, transparent money. Super PACs and 501(c)s can't pay salaries, rent, phone bills and other overhead expenses. Nor can they pay state ballot-access fees. And when they buy media time, outside groups generally pay higher ad rates than the candidates do.

It's possible that, once the GOP field thins out, deep-pocketed donors will see a better return on investment. It's also possible that the candidates have whispered to their dark-money contributors to hold off until the air wars really heat up. But in 2015, the fat-cat money didn't buy much. 

  1. Some experts don't think super PACs are dark money because they must disclose donor names, while 501(c)s do not. It can be a distinction without a difference, since a super PAC can accept money from a 501(c) front group whose individual donors remain secret.

    Both groups have no limit on what they can raise, and both are barred from coordinating (at least, not too openly) their spending with the candidates themselves. Nonprofits generally can't devote more than half their activities to politicking.

  2. The Supreme Court ruled that corporations and labor unions could spend unlimited amounts to independently advocate for and against candidates. Weeks later, a lower court ruled in SpeechNow.org v FEC that, because of the Citizens United opinion, contribution limits to independent-expenditure groups were also unconstitutional. Together, the rulings led to the creation of super PACs, which now act as shadow political parties.

    A list of candidate super PACS and the rules of the road can be found here.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Paula Dwyer at pdwyer11@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net