Nearly half of the money—or “free speech,” as the Supreme Court affirmed in Citizens United—raised by super PACs during the 2016 election cycle came from a handful of super-wealthy donors and their families.
The Washington Post reports just 50 individuals and their relatives gave 41 percent of the $607 million raised by 2,300 super PACs. The largest single super PAC contributor so far this cycle is billionaire hedge fund manager turned environmentalist and Hillary Clinton fundraiser Tom Steyer, who has given $17 million and pledged at least another $70 million to support his clean energy agenda.
However, 36 of those 50 donors are Republican supporters and their contributions amount to more than 70 percent of the money raised from the top 50. Leading conservative donors include fracking barons Farris and Dan Wilks ($15.3 million to a pro-Ted Cruz super PAC), disgraced former AIG CEO Maurice Greenberg ($15 million to support Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio), hedge fund manager Robert Mercer ($14.6 million to support Cruz and other conservative causes) and fossil fuel investor Toby Neugebauer ($10.1 million to a pair of pro-Cruz super PACs). Cruz enjoys particularly robust super PAC support, with a network of groups spending nearly $40 million on his campaign.
The Democrats’ top four super PAC supporters are all hedge fund managers, including Steyer—who hosted a $2,700-per-person Clinton fundraiser at his San Francisco home—and predatory investor and worldwide philanthropist George Soros ($8 million to support Clinton). According to a recent analysis by the government research site InsideGov, 22 individuals have given a total of nearly $43 million to three pro-Clinton super PACs.
Notably absent from the list are any supporters of billionaire businessman Donald Trump, the Republican frontrunner who according to the watchdog group Center for Responsible Politics has raised less than $2 million from outside groups, and Bernie Sanders, who has raised nearly $140 million despite almost entirely eschewing super PACs. A great deal of Sanders’ support has come in the form of online donations the Vermont senator says average about $27 each.
Sanders has repeatedly slammed both Clinton and Republican rivals for being beholden to big money donors who do not make large donations without expecting a return on their investment. The democratic socialist recently blasted Clinton for “spending an enormous amount of time raising money for your super PAC from some of the wealthiest people in this country, and from some of the most outrageous special interests.”
“Are you qualified to be president of the United States when you’re raising millions of dollars from Wall Street, whose greed and recklessness helped destroy our economy?” Sanders asked Clinton earlier this month.
Super PACs are nominally independent political action committees empowered by the Supreme Court in the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling to accept unlimited contributions from individuals, corporations and unions. Citizens United affirmed that corporations are people, money is free speech and limiting such speech is unconstitutional. While direct donations to and coordination with candidates is prohibited, super PACs may spend as much as they please influencing the outcome of American elections. They have done so with great gusto, and are already on pace to dwarf the $828 million raised during the entire 2012 election cycle.
While both Democrats and Republicans have called Citizens United one of the worst Supreme Court decisions in US history, corporate and conservative opposition has thus far stymied progressive efforts to move toward reversing the ruling. Although President Barack Obama has condemned Citizens United and super PACs, he also benefited from around $100 million in outside spending on the 2012 election.