Nearly Half of All Individual Donations to Super PACs Were Made By 25 Mega-Wealthy Donors, New Report Says

Twenty-five mega-wealthy political donors contributed nearly half of the almost $3 billion donated to super PACs by individuals over the last decade, a new analysis from the good-governance group Public Citizen has found.

The report, released on Wednesday, details just how starkly the political economy is controlled by a small subset of wealthy contributors. Almost $1.4 billion was given to super PACs—independent organizations which spend money to campaign for or against office-seekers—by these 25 donors and their spouses since 2010.

Unlike traditional candidate committees, super PACs are allowed to raise and spend unlimited sums of money, although they do have to disclose their donors and list their expenditures.

"The most prominent way these organizations exert influence is through negative ads," Alan Zibel, research director for Public Citizen's corporate presidency project and the report's author, told Newsweek.

Friends Of The Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) Western Region Gala
Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson attends Friends of The Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) Western Region Gala at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on November 1, 2018 in Beverly Hills, California. In a new report, Adelson and his wife were identified as the largest contributors to super PACs, independently operated political action committees, since 2010. Shahar Azran/Getty

A 2017 paper from researchers at the University of Connecticut noted that "super PACs have had a tremendous impact on elections," assuming "some of the roles previously ascribed to political parties and traditional political action committees, including aggregating funds collected from individuals, helping to set the national political agenda, and providing some of the information voters rely on when choosing candidates."

The money being funneled into these organizations is not just coming from a select few, wealthy donors, but from disproportionately white sources as well.

From 2010 to 2018, the top 10 majority-white zip codes for super PAC donations provided $977 million to these groups. This stands in contrast with the top 10 majority-minority zip codes, which provided just $68 million in super PAC donations, Public Citizen's analysis found.

Overall, majority-minority zip codes spent about $8 per household on super PAC donations, while white zip codes spent more than four times this amount per household.

"It's these ads with these tiny disclosures where the true interest is hidden or difficult for the public to figure out," Zibel explained about the concerns of massive independent expenditures. "These ads may seem like a good thing, like they're innocuous, but in reality who's paying for it is a private equity firm trying to make as much money from 'surprise' medical billing as possible, for example."

Super PACs sprawled into existence after two major court decisions: the Supreme Court's 2010 ruling in Citizens United striking down political spending limits imposed on corporations and other outside groups, and a subsequent appeals court ruling striking down contribution limits to independently operated committees.

In the very next federal election cycle, Republican contributors dominated super PAC funding, according to the report from Public Citizen, which is left-leaning. However, since 2014, pro-Republican and pro-Democrat contributions to super PACs have been roughly on par with one another.

Democratic Presidential Candidates Participate In Presidential Primary Debate In Des Moines, Iowa
Tom Steyer prepares for television interview in spin room after the Democratic presidential primary debate at Drake University on January 14, 2020 in Des Moines, Iowa. Steyer was identified as the second-most-contributing individual to super PACs in Public Citizen's analysis. Spencer Platt/Getty

This worries some election reform advocates, who note that Democrats traditionally push for limiting the role of money in politics and yet are not averse to embracing that money when it suits them. While Democrats frequently argue that it would be unwise to disarm themselves of a vital political tool needed to effect the desired change, that doesn't necessarily assuage concerns about the transformative influence of political dollars.

"The concern is that there's going to be such an arms race that would overwhelm the considerable momentum we have for reform," Zibel said. "Put another way, the concern is that if both parties get so addicted to this mega-money, it would make them less likely to enact major reforms in the ecosystem, which is what the people want."

Public Citizen's analysis found that Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate and Republican patron, and his wife were the largest individual super PAC contributors since Citizens United. The second-largest contributor was billionaire Tom Steyer, currently running for the Democratic Party's 2020 presidential nomination. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, also running for the same nomination, came in third place.

Despite the overwhelming slant of super PAC contributions towards ultra-wealthy and white donors, the Public Citizen analysis is likely understating the impact of wealthy dollars on the political process. This is because wealthy donors can also conceal their spending by funneling money through tax-exempt organizations, which can themselves contribute to super PACs and are not required to disclose their donors. These entities are often called dark money groups.

Zibel further remarked on one name not appearing on his report's list of top contributors.

"One particular name that would come to mind is the Koch brothers, who are virtually absent from recent super PAC donations," he observed. "So that would say to me that they haven't stopped their giving. The logical conclusion is that they're doing it through other vehicles, such dark money groups, where there is no disclosure."