October 25th, 2011

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NY Times: Without ‘Super PAC’ Numbers, Campaign Filings Present an Incomplete Picture

Tuesday, October 25th, 2011

The third-quarter campaign finance filings are in. The numbers have been crunched.

And now we know who is winning the 2012 fund-raising race. Right?

NY Times

Wrong. That’s because 2012 is the first presidential campaign waged in the era of “super PACs,” groups unleashed by court rulings that struck down limits on contributions to outside groups as long as they do not directly coordinate their expenditures with candidates.

And unlike the campaigns, which were required to submit their latest quarterly contribution and expenditure reports by midnight last Saturday, the first time most super PACs will have to disclose their full numbers is Jan. 31, more than three months from now.

“With the candidate filings, we are only seeing a fraction of the total money raised for the presidential race,” said Ellen S. Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, a group that advocates more transparency in campaign spending. “The money being raised by super PACs — which very much are working for individual candidates — is completely secret at the moment and those that have to report won’t do so until the end of January of next year.

Under the current likely election calendar, that means that a clear picture of super PAC fund-raising will not be available until after the Iowa caucuses and the primaries in New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina, and Florida are already over — a span of skirmishes that has often proved decisive in presidential nominating contests.

“It’s like watching a videotape of a bank robbery,” Ms. Miller said. “After the fact.”

All but a few of the presidential candidates are now backed by super PACs, most of them organized by close allies or former aides and financed by their top donors. In some cases, they appear to be planning to spend substantial amounts of money. The pro-Perry Make Us Great Again, according to early planning documents, hopes to raise and spend as much as $55 million through next April on advertising, polling, research, social media efforts and more.

And through June 30, the last date on which super PACs were required to file with the Federal Election Commission, the pro-Romney group Restore Our Future raised $12.3 million, more than most of the other Republican candidates have raised for their actual campaigns.

The disclosure requirements for such groups make it difficult to evaluate each candidate’s true fighting weight when it comes to money and to determine what financial interests are indirectly supporting certain candidates. While the campaigns can’t coordinate expenditures with the super PACs — for example, on the content or timing of a television advertisement — the super PACs can spend millions of dollars on their behalf, effectively providing the candidates a boost that they might not afford to pay for out of their own war chests.

While rules are lax on their actual fund-raising, once super PACs spend money they are required to disclose most of these expenditures within a day or two, including details of how the money was spent and which candidate the expenditure was meant to help.

Some campaign finance experts do not believe that the relative secrecy around super PACs will make much of a difference. The most important factor in how each of the candidates fare in the Republican primary, they say, will be the candidates themselves.

“I would not underestimate the importance of the candidates’ own numbers,” said Sean Parnell, an advocate for less regulation of campaign money and political advertising. “While there are going to be independent voices out there, talking about Rick Perry and Mitt Romney and whoever else, it’s still up to the candidates to decide how to present themselves to voters, to design their messages.”

One advantage that super PACs offer is the freedom to let candidates focus on positive advertising and messages while leaving it to allied super PACs to handle attacks, effectively allowing one side to “go negative” in the campaign, with less mud splashing back on the candidate. (The corollary is also true: Since the super PACs cannot coordinate their efforts and expenditures with the candidates they are supporting, the outside groups run the risk of muddling the message or plans of the candidates they are trying to help.)

Still, the chief advantage is financial: Unlike the campaigns, which can only receive $2,500 from each donor during primary season, super PACs can raise money in unlimited amounts, allowing just a handful of a candidate’s deep-pocketed donors to quickly inject millions of dollars into a campaign battle. A candidate who appears to be well-financed might in reality be severely outgunned by an opponent’s super PAC — without even knowing it. And a candidate who is lagging in fund-raising might still be made competitive by the work of an allied super PAC financed by a small group of donors.