Perhaps it is time to stop bemoaning the weakness of political parties in financing federal elections. The prevailing opinion is that since the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC, “outside groups” accepting unlimited contributions have come to play so important a role in competitive races as to be pushing the candidates and political parties to the sideline. A newly released study by the Campaign Finance Institute (CFI) of 2016 general election campaign spending shows decisively that this is not true.
The basic source of misunderstanding stems from the legal categories under which federal financial activities are reported. Formal political party committees are designated, but all others are lumped together as non-party actors. Within the supposedly “non-party” organizations are four major Super PACs clearly associated with congressional party leaders. The Congressional Leadership Fund and Senate Leadership Fund are associated strongly with the House and Senate Republican leaders; the Senate Majority PAC and House Majority PAC are strongly associated with the Democratic leaders.
When the leadership committees are included in the calculations, the picture comes to look radically different from the conventional wisdom. These four committees were massively important in 2016, spending $232 million in general elections for the House and Senate (see table 1). This more than doubled the $114 million of independent expenditures (IEs) by the comparable committees in 2014*. Substantial increases were posted by each of the four leadership PACs – House and Senate, Democratic and Republican. By comparison, the four formal party committees’ IEs and receipts stayed roughly level. (For party receipts since 2002, see table 4.) The remaining non-party committees spent less on IEs in House races in 2016 than 2014 but more for the Senate, with the combined total going up by about 15%. Taken together the formal party committees and the leadership Super PACs combined to outspend all of the other non-party spenders by a margin that was more than four times as large in 2016 ($132 million) as in 2014 ($29 million).
The results are particularly visible in marginal contests. In House races, the parties (defined here to include the leadership Super PACs) were responsible for 88% of the independent spending in the 34 competitive elections with $2 million or more of IEs in the general election (see table 2). These races accounted for 93% of all general election IEs for the House in 2016. Independent spending in those races exceeded candidate spending by 1.31 to 1.
In Senate elections, the battle for majority control stimulated substantially more non-party IEs than for the House. As a result, the parties plus leadership committees together spent roughly the same amount in the eight states with the highest IEs as all other non-party organizations combined. These races accounted for 92% of all general election IEs in the Senate (see table 3). Independent spending in these eight races nearly doubled candidate spending, 1.97 to 1. When candidate spending is included, the candidates plus parties accounted for 65% of all spending in the eight Senate elections. The other 35% came from non-party organizations other than the leadership Super PACs. In the generally less competitive races below these top ones in both House and Senate, spending by the candidates predominated. The 35% coming from these truly non-party organizations is significant. It is much more than one would have seen before Citizens United. But parties have found a way to fight back; and neither they nor the candidates have been displaced.
The precise way in which the parties have rebounded says something about the current law’s permeability. The four leadership Super PACs raised about three-quarters of their 2016 money from individuals. Of that, 80% of the money from individual contributions came from donors who gave the Super PACs more than the maximum they would have been allowed to give the formal party organizations. The remaining money going to the leadership Super PACs came from organizations (including corporations) that may not give to the formal parties at all. By combining unlimited contributions from all these sources, the leadership Super PACs’ funding looks much like the soft-money the formal parties accepted before the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA). The two main differences are these. First, before BCRA the soft money typically would be spent on “issue ads” targeting specific candidates. Unlike IEs, these could not “expressly” advocate the election or defeat of those candidates. Second, spending by the new leadership Super PACs ostensibly has to be “independent” of the candidates’ and parties’ campaigns while the soft-money spending before BCRA – by wearing the fig leaf of being about issues – did not have to wear the similarly thin fig leaf of claimed independence.
Table 1: General Election Independent Expenditures, Party and Leadership Super PACs, 2014-2016.
Table 2: Party & Non-Party Independent Spending in House General Election Races, 2016
Table 3: Party & Non-Party Independent Spending in Senate General Election Races, 2016
Table 4: Hard and Soft Money Raised by National Party Committees, 1992-2016