What Happened to All That Super PAC Money?

In our first post-Citizens United presidential election, President Barack Obama managed to overcome the threat of uncapped super PAC funds to win his re-election bid. So what happened to all of that cash that super PACs spent on the election?

First, let’s look at the numbers. Super PACs raked in over one billion dollars for the presidential election alone. According to ProPublica estimates, Mitt Romney super PACs spent $6.35 for every vote they received; $5.60 of that was spent attacking his opponent. As for the Obama super PACs, they spent $1.83 for each vote, with $1.43 of that going toward anti-Romney ads.

The vast majority of super PAC money went toward TV commercials, almost all of which were negative. This cycle, overwhelmed viewers appear to have tuned out these ads rather than using them to help make their decision. Charlie Spies, the treasurer of a Romney super PAC agreed, explaining, “The sheer volume of ads in all races certainly meant that it was hard to penetrate with a message.” Forget the politicians, with nearly a billion dollars in ads, the real winners of Citizens United have been the television networks.

Since the super PACS’ efforts failed to turn the presidential race, now even wealthy conservatives are concerned about the accountability of super PACs. Foster Friess, who donated $5 million to pro-Romney Super PACs, said to the LA Times, “You have no idea of the financial structuring of a lot of these outside groups in term of how much went to the actual delivery of a message versus how many dollars were taken off as fees to the people running them.” Of course, that is the danger in donating money to non-transparent, unregulated entities.

But the bottom line is, when Friess spends millions to buy an election, he wants to make sure his side actually wins the election. Despite this election’s failure, Friess still anticipates that he and his cronies will pour in just as much money into the next presidential election, but they will expect them to be smarter about it.

In that sense, consider 2012 merely a practice run. Citizens United is still a game-changer, the wealthy just have yet to learn how to foolproof this advantage. In four years, look for the money to spent not just on television ads, but in manners that resemble grassroots tactics in order to get out the vote.

Besides, super PACs actually had a profound impact on races on the state and local level. As the Institute for Southern Studies points out, it is much easier to sway voters’ opinions on local candidates who they know less about than the presidential candidates. In many cases, the negative ads are all the voters are familiar with, and the effects show in the voting results. Out of the ten North Carolina races that generated the most outside super PAC money, Republicans won nine of the ten seats by spending at a rate of 2:1.

So let’s not let 2012’s presidential outcome fool us. President Obama may have surmounted steep financial obstacles this time around, but we likely have not felt the full effects of unlimited corporate spending on elections yet.


Related Stories:

President Obama Supports Undoing Citizens United

The Election Cost HOW Much?

8 Reasons Why Super PACs May Cost Obama the Election


Photo: thinkstock


Jim Lauder
Jim Lauder6 years ago

Don't forget it's the super rich that own the media. So in effect, they were paying themselves. Win or lose, they win. It's so tough at the top!

Tony C.
Tony C6 years ago

If Citizens United can be repealed so that future elections can NOT be bought and voter registration can be modified so that the Federal Government can make it so that any citizen can vote in a timely matter in the next elections whether they be State or Federal. It is ridiculous and wrong that people have to wait in some cases 9 hours or more just to vote their conscience. It should be easy and people should have 3 weeks to a month in order to vote if needed. That would make it a level playing field for all the people.

Robert Ludwig
Robert Ludwig6 years ago

The only bright note here, the one that gives me absolute glee, is that all that money they spent was wasted and they will never, ever get it back.

BWAHAHAHAHAHAAHAHAHA (cue dramatic organ music).

Deborah F.
Deborah F6 years ago


Michael Crane
Michael Crane6 years ago

Seems the only way to same our democracy is to over turn the courts Citizen's United decision...other wise the uber rich will...sooner than later...buy our White House. And, that creats a truly horrific senario we should all not want. Because if that plays out the way the GOP would like to see it...our democracy is indeed doomed.

John Hablinski
John Hablinski6 years ago

@Charles S. you are a man after my own heart. We Americans are a gullible group. A few decades back Americans were told over and over again that unions were bad things and responsible for jobs moving offshore. If you paid even cursory attention to the recent presidential election you saw how companies bought other companies sucked the profits and cash out of the operation and if the company survives they moved it offshore and poof the jobs were gone. We were told the high wages unions demanded were the cause of companies leaving the US. In many cases it was the new CEO class who sucked all the profits out of companies while busting the unions and secretly grabbing the pension money out of the companies.
America it was the unions which created the middle class in our country and if you graph the data you will see as union membership fell so did the middle class and the money the middle class used to have is now in the coffers of the rich. The unions didn’t damage out economy it was the CEOs and companies such as Bain Capital and other hedge fund operators and their Republican allies who wrote tax laws that favored off shoring.

Alexandra Rodda
Alexandra Rodda6 years ago

I guess this was one of the ways that the money of the super rich gets to "trickle down".
One can't say that the trickle was at all beneficial for anyone except the designers, TV crews, etc that were paid to produce the visual and other messages of the GOP. Still, the TV crews, Billboard printers etc, will go and spend some on hamburgers in the local cafeteria and another lot of underpaid workers can get paid and live another few days. Great!
There is no doubt that the extreme right wing of the GOP, members the Bohemian Club, etc have already met to plan what more effective conniving things they can do with the money next time. After all, for them this is not a lot of money.

Lynn C.
Past Member 6 years ago

Here's hoping we can get this done - but you can bet your bottom dollar that these people won't stop - too much at stake - which is, of course, control of this country's government.

Winn Adams
Winn Adams6 years ago


Debra G.
Missy G6 years ago