Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul are becoming increasingly dependent on these nontraditional sources of campaign finance, which allow candidates to reap unlimited donations. Super PACs are the mechanism by which a small group of super-rich has become the biggest source of campaign cash in 2012. Without them, two of the Republican hopefuls -- Santorum and Gingrich -- might have seen their electoral hopes dashed by now.
What Is A Super PAC?
The short answer: Super PACs are outside spending groups that aren't part of the campaign but are allowed -- by law -- to spend unlimited sums to support or attack a candidate.
In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that corporations, labor unions and other large organizations have the same free speech rights as individual citizens. In the case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the judges by a 5-4 majority overturned parts of the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act.
In practice, Super PACS have become a haven for anonymous donations of previously unimaginable sums from wealthy individuals and groups. They are allowed to conduct their own campaigns, but -- according to the law's provisions -- without the knowledge or involvement of the candidates they support.
Still, it's difficult to tell how much the no coordination rule is enforced. Viveca Novak of OpenSecrets.org pointed out that many of the staff members running these committees used to be on the staff of candidates and have close relationships with them. Also, candidates sometimes appear at events for these super PACs.
Whether or not there is actual coordination of strategy, we don't know. But there's certainly a much cozier relationship than what was envisioned [by the court], she said.
Super PACS are required to report their donors to the Federal Election Commission on either a monthly or quarterly basis, like any tradition political action committee would.
What are the biggest super PACs?
According to OpenSecrets.org, super PACs have raised a total of $130,330,844 and spent $51,220,626 in the 2012 cycle as of Feb. 22. Although there are dozens of these committees, a few dominate as the biggest fundraisers and spenders.
Restore Our Future: Federal Election Commission filings show that Mitt Romney has benefitted the most from super PACs, with the pro-Romney Restore Our Future raising a whopping $36.8 million through Jan. 21. In January, Restore Our Future raised $6.6 million. That pretty much doubled what Romney campaign fundraising as Romney for President, the former Massachusetts governor's official campaign committee, raised almost the same amount ($6.5 million in January).
Winning Our Future: This pro-Newt Gingrich super PAC has raised a total of $13.1 million through Jan. 31 and $11 million last month alone.
Endorse Liberty: a committee that supports Ron Paul that was founded late December, has raised $3.4 million as of Jan. 31 and $2.4 million in January.
The Red White and Blue Fund: a super PAC which supports Rick Santorum and raised $2.8 million as of the end of January. Most of its money came in last month ($2.1 million).
American Crossroads: this a super PAC spends most of its money on anti-Obama ads and has Bush cabinet alum Karl Rove and former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour as its senior advisers. It raised $51 million in 2011. It does not support any candidate in particular.
Restore our Future, however, has spent $20.5 million of its $36.8 million, giving the super PAC opportunity to pick up the slack.
Who are these wealthy donors?
Anyone can donate to a super PAC, but a few sugar daddies have become major players in the 2012 election. Salon's Ari Berman reported that 196 individuals accounted for nearly 80 percent of the money Super PACs received in 2011. According to USA Today, about a quarter of funds raised since last year comes from just five very wealthy donors.
Harold Simmons, a Dallas industrialist who owns a company called Contran, has donated a total of $14.2 million dollars to American Crossroads and other super PACs that support Rick Perry (before he dropped out of the race), Romney and Gingrich.
Casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam have helped propel Newt Gingrich through the race, spending $10 million on Winning Our Future. According to reports, Adelson may pour in another $10 million into the super PAC to boost the candidate's sputtering campaign.
Bob Perry, a Houston homebuilder and major financier of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in 2004, has poured $3.6 million into American Crossroads as well as pro-Romney, pro-Perry super PACs.
Silicon Valley investor and PayPal co-found Peter Thiel is one of Ron Paul's biggest donators, spending $2.6 million on a super PAC the distributes online ads and commercials for the Texas libertarian.
The man behind the pro-Santorum Red White and Blue fund is Foster Friess, a businessman and supporter of conservative Christian causes, contributed $1 million to the super PAC in January.
There are, of course, much more wealthy donors who keep these PACs funded. The New York Times has a great info graphic that breaks down the major contributors.
Where does the money go?
Super PAC money is largely spent on ads, whether it is online, broadcasted on television or other media, to either support or attack a candidate. A little more than half of the money is spent on negative ads.
According to analysis by the Los Angeles Times, Gingrich is the biggest loser to negative attack ads. PACs supporting Romney have spent over $17 million to oppose the former House Speaker, while his own super PAC, Winning Our Future, has only spent $7.9 million in positive advertising.
How big of a deal are they, really?
As GOP presidential hopefuls become more dependent on these outside fund-raising machines, super PACs and their major donors have become some of the most influential people in the race.
For example, super PACs are partly why this election is particularly nastier than those in the past. According to the Washington Post, 6 percent of campaign advertising in GOP primaries were used towards attack ads on other Republicans; in this election season, that number shot up more than 50 percent. A good chunk of those attack ads were funded by super PACs.
Super PAC super donors have also proven themselves invaluable in making sure they're preferred candidate keeps going forward. For example, Sheldon Adelson injected about $7.7 million into American Solutions for Winning the Future, a political committee that helped launch Gingrich's current campaign, between 2006 and 2010. After disappointing finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, he also helped revive the candidate's campaign.
It's impossible to tell how different things would be without the Citizens United v. FEC ruling. Would certain candidates have dropped out by now? Would the big donations somehow make its way into campaigns, anyway?
There are always factors that one doesn't anticipate and money finds a way to get into the race, Novak said. You block out one route and it pops up in other ways.
Regardless, super PACs have a significant role in this year's election cycle and the country's biggest donors are worth watching.