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2016's Campaign War Chests Are Just Jewelry Boxes Next To The Super PACs


If you're a political reporter, this morning you're probably feeling like you're surrounded by numbers. This is because last night was the deadline for presidential candidates to disclose how much money their campaign committees have raised. Truth be told, though, the really big money is in the hands of groups that are supposed to be independent of the campaigns. Here's our colleague who always makes sense of the numbers, NPR's Peter Overby.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: So far, the eye-popping fundraising number comes from Republican candidate Jeb Bush. He's raised $11.5 million through his campaign committee. But here's the big number - his super PAC raised $103 million.

ANTHONY CORRADO: That means that Bush and his allies are dominating the fundraising at this point. His super PAC raised far more than any other super PAC.

OVERBY: Political scientist Anthony Corrado, at Colby College in Maine, compared it to the last presidential election.

CORRADO: Bush's super PAC, by the end of June, had raised $100 million. That's more than twice the amount all presidential candidates' super PACs raised during the entire year in 2011.

OVERBY: And it's the financial model for 2016. Officially, super PACs are independent of the presidential candidates they're supporting. There's at least one for each of the major candidates - well, each of them except Bernie Sanders, running in the Democratic primary. Here's why super PACs are such a big deal - they have no contribution limits. A candidate's official campaign committee is limited to $5,400 per donor. But with a super PAC, basically you can give as much as you want. This year, a lot of donors are said to be writing super PAC checks in the tens of millions of dollars. So, for example, in the second quarter, Republican Ted Cruz's campaign committee raised just over $14 million. Cruz also has three super PACs linked together. He talked about them back in June.


TED CRUZ: The super PAC that's supporting us - we can't coordinate with them, but they announced publicly that they have already raised over $37 million in the bank.

OVERBY: Last week, the campaign proclaimed its second-quarter results by rolling the super PAC money into the total, allowing Cruz to claim $51 million from, quote, "supporters." The unlimited giving to super PACs follows directly from the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling in 2010. It threw out any sort of contribution limits, unless the money was going to candidates or party committees.

TOM DAVIS: Citizens United has put all this on steroids at this point because the amount of money coming into this is now almost limitless.

OVERBY: This is former Congressman Tom Davis, a Republican strategist. There are rules against coordinating between an independent super PAC and a candidate's campaign. But Davis said the rules aren't really enforced and the independence is getting to be theoretical.

DAVIS: I don't see - although there's a legal differentiation between what a super PAC can do and what a candidate can do, they're basically joined at the hip.

OVERBY: And now maybe even closer than that. The Bush campaign and others have been talking about having the super PAC take over some of the campaign's usual jobs - field organizing and advertising, for instance. In other words, shifting expensive parts of the campaign to an entity that takes unlimited contributions. Here's Democratic strategist Brad Woodhouse.

BRAD WOODHOUSE: I don't think anyone on the Supreme Court or anywhere else in our political system probably foresaw that type of activity.

OVERBY: Nor did they apparently foresee the kind of enterprise Woodhouse is heading up now. Correct The Record is Hillary Clinton's rapid response unit, designed to counter assaults from the opposition. But don't mistake Correct The Record for part of her campaign. It's a super PAC. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

GREENE: And our political team was crunching the fundraising numbers from all the presidential candidates late into the night. You can find those numbers at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.
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