Report: Protecting Consumers

Billion-Dollar Democracy

The Unprecedented Role of Money in the 2012 Elections
Released by: Arizona PIRG Education Fund

Executive Summary

The first presidential election since Citizens United lived up to its hype, with unprecedented outside spending from new sources making headlines.

The Arizona PIRG Education Fund and Demos analysis of reports from campaigns, parties, and outside spenders to the Federal Election Commission found that our big money system distorts democracy and creates clear winners and losers:

Wealthy Donors Over Average Citizens

Newly minted Super PACs dominated outside spending reported to the FEC, aggregating huge sums from millionaires and billionaires.

  • The top 32 Super PAC donors, giving an average of $9.9 million each, matched the $313.0 million that President Obama and Mitt Romney raised from all of their small donors combined—that’s at least 3.7 million people giving less than $200.
  • Nearly 60% of Super PAC funding came from just 159 donors contributing at least $1 million. More than 93% of the money Super PACs raised came in contributions of at least $10,000—from just 3,318 donors, or 0.0011% of the U.S. population.
  • It would take 322,000 average-earning American families giving an equivalent share of their net worth to match the Adelsons’ $91.8 million in Super PAC contributions.
  • Super PACs accounted for more than 60% of outside spending reported to the FEC.
  • For the 2012 cycle, Super PACs received more than 70% of their funds from individuals, and a significant percentage (12%) from for-profit businesses.  

Fundraising candidate campaigns was also dominated by an elite donor class and special interests.

  • Candidates for both the U.S. Senate and U.S House raised the majority of their funds from gifts of $1,000 or more; and 40% of all contributions to U.S. Senate candidates came from donors who maxed out at the $2500 contribution limit, from just 0.02% of the American population.
  • In the 2012 election cycle, 83.9% of U.S. House candidates and 66.7% of U.S. Senate candidates who outspent their general election opponents won their elections.
  • Winning U.S. House candidates outraised major opponents by 108%, winning U.S. Senate candidates by 35%.

Special Interests Over the Public Interest

Super PACs raised a significant portion of their funds from business interests.

  • For-profits corporations were the second largest donors to super PACs accounting for 12% of all contributions.
  • Businesses provided a significant portion of the funds for some of the most active super PACs, including 18.0% of Restore Our Future’s funds and 10.3% of Majority PAC’s.

Candidates, and especially winning candidates, raised a significant portion of their funds from political action committees (PACs).

  • Winners of federal U.S. House races raised on average 40% of their funds from PACs versus 19.9% raised by major opponents.
  • Winners of U.S. Senate races raised on average 15.9% of their funds from PACs versus 8.3% for losers.

Incumbents Over Challengers & Grassroots Candidates

  • In 2012 95.2% of incumbent senators and 91.2% of incumbent representatives who ran for office won re-election.
  • In the 2012 cycle, incumbent representatives outraised major challengers $1,732,000 to $319,000, for an incredible 443% advantage. U.S. Senate incumbents outraised major challengers $7.02 million to $1.69 million, for a slightly smaller 316% advantage.
  • Challengers depended upon self-financing for more than 20% of their funds, showing that it’s important to be wealthy to run against an incumbent in our big-money system.

Secret Spenders Over Voters Seeking Accountability

Non-profit groups, which before 2010 were not allowed to directly spend on elections, spent big while hiding the identity of their donors.

  • Of outside spending reported to the FEC, 31% was “secret spending,” coming from organizations that are not required to disclose the original sources of their funds.
  • Much of the spending by these non-profit groups went unreported as it fell outside a certain window of time before the elections. Further analysis shows that dark money groups accounted 58% of funds spent by outside groups on presidential television ads.

Support Us

Your tax-deductible donation supports Arizona PIRG Education Fund's work to educate consumers on the issues that matter, and to stand up to the powerful interests that are blocking progress.

Learn More

You can also support Arizona PIRG Education Fund’s work through bequests, contributions from life insurance or retirement plans, securities contributions and vehicle donations. 

Arizona PIRG Education Fund is part of The Public Interest Network, which operates and supports organizations committed to a shared vision of a better world and a strategic approach to social change.