Individuals and corporations are donating to entities vast sums one observer said could be considered "decimal dust" in their circles but are dizzying to the average person.
Welcome to the world of independent expenditure committees, aka super PACs.
Super PACs can't make contributions to candidate campaigns or parties, but can engage in unlimited political spending independently of the campaigns. Unlike traditional PACs, they can raise cash from corporations, unions and other groups, as well as from individuals -- without legal limit.
Super PACs' expenditures hit the $100 million mark recently, offering proof outside spending will supersede anything seen in previous election cycles, OpenSecrets.org said.
The drawn-out Republican presidential nominating process drew the bulk of the super PAC money. The five top outside spenders, all of them super PACs formed to support one of the GOP candidates, were responsible for $86 million of the first $100 million spent.
Of the 26 party-affiliated political action committees, only 11 started spending in any races, OpenSecrets.org said. Of the 158 other, non-super PAC outside groups, 135 have started spending. But only 78 of the 534 super PACs have spent a dime.
Some of the dormant super PACs appear to be spoofs, but OpenSecrets.org said data it collected indicate quite a few super PACs are sitting on their cash, apparently waiting for the right moment to enter the fray.
Super PACs and their money help "level the playing field to a great degree," said Amy Showalter, founder of The Showalter Group, a Cincinnati organization that helps associations and corporations enhance their grassroots and PAC effectiveness. "Money is free speech. … We speak with our pocketbooks for a lot of things."
And, she said, voters are less inclined to vote for someone "who either couldn't raise a lot of money on their own" or lacks super PAC backing.
Super PAC donations also show the level of concern people have about government in general, Showalter said.
The money flowing in politics "doesn't concern me that much," she said, explaining, "It's a way of people expressing support."
Super PACs also can help challengers win races by infusing their campaigns with cash, the grassroots and PAC influence expert said.
Take the state of Nevada, for example, a general-election battleground that ranks 25th in donations from its residents to presidential candidates this election cycle, USA Today reported. But the state is second in donations to super PACs, propelled by $25 million from just one household -- casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam, whose mega-contributions breathed life into Newt Gingrich's campaign before he bowed out.
On the minus side of the ledger is that many super PACs run only negative ads, she said.
"That being said, negative ads work," Showalter said, and carry five times more the weight than positive ads "no matter what realm they're in."
Also, she said, "a lot of time super PACs go places candidates can't go" in terms of messaging.
She wasn't concerned about super PACs on a presidential level, because of their national scope and the general knowledge of who or what they represent.
"I am more concerned on a congressional level where super PACs from one state are involved in a campaign in another state," Showalter said. "Those congressional candidates running on issues based on their district -- and then you've got a PAC from another state."
"It's so under the radar," she said. "What's insidious [is] they're really putting their foot in something where they don't live. When a Texas PAC is involved in Ohio, that's a concern."
Another issue for Showalter is that not all Super PACs have boards of directors to vote on candidates because nothing requires them to have such boards or bylaws.
"If you don't have a transparent process" governing where the money goes or why it was donated, "good luck in raising, money," she said.
Because it is illegal for a candidate to communicate with a super PAC, messages can be mixed.
She said she would like to see super PACs have a "real clear declaration about where they're going to play -- get involved in national races or stay in your own state. … Focus is what matters."
Larry Jacobs, with the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs in Minneapolis, said he thinks super PACs have enormous influence and are a "clear and present threat in an open democracy."
"If you're a wealthy individual or wealthy interest, in the past you were encumbered by who and how much. Contributions funneled through broad-based political parties," Jacobs said.
People contribute to "the party that's going … to advance [a] particular issue you're interested in" and the party would use part of that contribution for other matters, such as social issues or recruiting candidates, he said.
"What's happening now is that the amount of money being given has enabled single individuals to literally bankroll [a] candidacy," the director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance said. "I haven't seen that kind of power money in decades."
In Nevada, Wyoming, Arkansas, Texas, Utah and Oklahoma, along with Washington, D.C., super PAC contributions have overwhelmed direct donations to presidential campaigns, fueled by a few tycoons who call those states home, a USA Today analysis of federal election data indicated.
The concentration of political money in a handful of states illustrates how the massive spending of the 2012 election has changed the fundraising map in ways not seen since post-Watergate campaign finance limit laws, the analysis indicated. Outside spending has topped $113 million in this election so far, more than four times the amount at this point in the 2008 campaign.
In business parlance, super PAC contributors are "getting a high yield for dollars invested" for advocacy of their particular issues, Jacobs said.
"They can funnel that money into independent expenditure groups that will devote 90 percent of what they give to their issue," he said.
The bang for the political buck is "much more potent," Jacobs said.
Jacobs sees the power shifting toward the wealthy and the wealthy interests.
"Unions will also benefit, but their resources are not in the same league as the business community and the super-rich," Jacobs said.
Super PACs "really shatter the old order of things," Showalter said. "They create a lot more competition for someone's political dollar. … They represent more speech. If you get people talking more, I don't know how that can be bad.
"We have to remember that the good old days weren't always good old days. I think having more political speech is a good thing."
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