NEW YORK -- Today is the day the curtain is being drawn back on the "super PACs" spending unprecedented money on the presidential stage.
Super PACs, the independent political action committees formed to benefit a single candidate, are disclosing their 2011 end-of-year totals for both fundraising and spending, activities they can pursue without limits, as long as they are not coordinated with the candidates. The super PACs have collectively spent more than $44 million during Campaign 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Of the 277 active super PACs registered with the Federal Election Commission, the one whose report that will perhaps bear the most scrutiny is that of the pro-Mitt Romney group "Restore Our Future." Disclosures already made to the FEC reveal that super PAC has spent $17 million -- primarily on TV advertisements attacking his leading rival for the Republican nomination, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. In its previous required FEC filing six months ago, Restore Our Future reported raising $12.2 million through June 2011. It did not spend significant sums until it blitzed the Iowa airwaves starting in late December with a slew of anti-Gingrich ads.
The former Massachusetts governor's actual campaign had spent more than the super PAC -- $29 million -- before the primaries in South Carolina and Florida, where it has dumped millions more. The campaign, it announced on January 11.
The leading pro-Gingrich super PAC, "Winning Our Future," has already reported spending nearly $9 million. It's FEC report today will be our first look at its tally and donors, except it won't include the. By comparison, today the Gingrich campaign announced it and another $5 million in January. It did not disclose it cash on hand.
An estimated two-thirds of all super PAC spending in Campaign 2012 has come from the pro-Romney Restore Our Future and the pro-Gingrich Winning Our Future, according to a report yesterday from the watchdog Sunlight Foundation.
Unlike candidate campaign committees for federal office, which are restricted to $2,500 contributions per donor during the primary season and another $2,500 for the general election, there is no ceiling on the amount people can give to super PACs or what super PACs can spend on advocacy, thanks to the 2010 Supreme Court decision, Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission and a subsequent federal appeals court case, Speechnow.org vs. FEC.
As a result of these court rulings, in 2012, independent groups' share of campaign ad spending has soared from 3 percent of presidential campaign ad spending in 2008 to 44 percent this cycle, according to a report yesterday from the Wesleyan Media Project. In other words, candidates sponsored 97 percent of TV ads four years ago, but are paying for only 56 percent of them in 2012.
James Bopp, the Indiana lawyer who successfully argued Citizens United before the Supreme Court, told CBS News he welcomes the influx of cash into the presidential race.
"We spend more on ice cream in a given year than we do on the election of the president, and unfortunately there's not enough information out there," Bopp said. "People do not know the name of their congressman, they don't know the name of the vice president, much less what their policies are. So we need much more spending in order to have more informed voting."
Today's FEC filings reveal one truism of super PACs - that an exceptionally wealthy person can almost single-handedly keep a campaign afloat. Take former Utah governor and ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, who quit his quest for the White House in South Carolina. Today's report from the pro-Huntsman group "Our Destiny" filed with the FEC shows that indeed Jon Huntsman Sr., the candidate's billionaire industrialist father, contributed $1.9 million of the PAC's total $2.6 million spent. That's 70 percent of the total take. There were only 10 other donors. While Huntsman slogged through a hundred town meetings, it was the super PAC that kept Huntsman on the airwaves in New Hampshire, paying for what was for weeks his only TV ad.
Herman Cain, the businessman also-ran turned Gingrich backer who dropped out of the race even before the Iowa caucuses, did not benefit much from a Super PAC formed to support him. The "9-9-9 Fund," named after Cain's flat tax plan, raised only $617,620 and spent only $414,092, according to its FEC filing today. There were no six-figure donors and no big names among them, not even the ideologically-aligned billionaire Koch brothers, whom Cain has referred to as "my brothers from another mother." No word on what the 9-9-9 Fund may do with its unspent $203,000.
The super PAC formed to support Rick Perry, "Make Us Great Again," folded when the Texas governor folded his campaign and at the time vowed not to spend any leftover funds. Previous FEC filings indicate M.U.G.A. spent $4 million on the lost cause. By comparison, the defunct Perry campaign reported today that it had $3.8 million cash on hand at the end of 2011 -- before his final push in Iowa and South Carolina. Perry had raised $2.9 million the final quarter of 2011, compared to a more robust $15 million he raised in the third quarter.
Comic relief to all of these eye-glazing numbers comes from TV host Stephen Colbert. His super PAC, "Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow" - no joke, it is legal - reported to the FEC raising $825,475 in 2011 and spending $151,512, leaving it with $673,954 cash on hand. Most of the contributions were under $500. In an addendum filed yesterday, the treasurer noted that in the past month their . Colbert added in the letter, ''Yeah! How you like me now, F.E.C? I'm rolling seven digits deep! I got 99 problems but a non-connected independent-expenditure only committee ain't one!''
Additional reporting by Daniel Gilberg and Sarah Fitzpatrick.