Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, picked up $2 million in just his first week as an official candidate for the presidency. And reportedly, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush hopes to hit a super PAC fundraising goal of $100 million for the first quarter of the year. Running for president has been a costly endeavor for decades, but it seems to grow more expensive every cycle. In 2012, Mitt Romney's super PAC, Restore Our Future, spent $43 million for his entire primary campaign, and it seemed like a huge sum. But that figure will likely be dwarfed in 2016.
As it turns out, Americans want to see less spending in politics, not more. According to a CBS news poll conducted at the beginning of 2012, more than two-thirds of Americans wanted caps on campaign spending by outside groups unaffiliated with candidates. Nearly 65 percent also favored limits to the contributions individuals can donate to campaigns.
But the environment has generally favored candidates who can raise piles of cash, and this cycle has seen some candidates pushing on the Federal Election Commission's (FEC) boundaries in order to maximize their fundraising efforts.
One such example is former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has said he is considering a presidential bid, which he emphasizes often. He can raise unlimited amounts of money from supporters and corporations for his super PAC, as long as he doesn't officially declare his candidacy or act too much like a candidate.
If and when Bush formally declares he's running, he'll have to end his fundraising for his super PAC and fire up a campaign committee that has considerably tighter fundraising limits.
Bush isn't alone -- a number of potential candidates have, like Bush, also been taking their time considering a White House run before making an official announcement. Earlier this month, at the Iowa Agriculture Summit, former Sen. Rick Santorum, slipped when he said, "I remember the last campaign," before he corrected himself, saying, "Well, not that we're in a campaign...the FEC is watching." Santorum is also raising money for his super PAC.
This kind of wink-and-nod in which potential candidates raise millions without officially declaring their candidacy irritates campaign finance analysts like Bob Biersack, who spent 30 years at the FEC before joining the watchdog organization Center for Responsive Politics. He told CBS News, "It shows the kind of absurdity of the place we're in now."
Biersack is unhappy about the current laws. He recalls an era when the steps toward a declared presidential candidacy were decidedly simpler.
"The rule there is that an individual who wants to get a feel for things can establish an exploratory committee," Biersack said. This first committee would then be able to solicit limited contributions and spend money on certain things, like "polling, travel, hiring staff."
Candidates didn't (and still don't) use their exploratory committees to pay for any form of advertising to influence an election. But when candidates were ready to declare their intention to run for national office, they would file paperwork with the FEC to create an actual campaign committee and agree to disclose their donors on a quarterly basis.
In 2010, two Supreme Court decisions Citizens United v. FEC and SpeechNOW.org changed the rules of the campaign game by giving birth to a new type of political action committee, the super PAC (also known as an independent expenditure committee). Super PACs put a lot of money into the 2012 presidential race, although none of the candidates initiated the super PACs supporting them or raised money for these super PACS. This cycle is the first one to see the would-be candidate's direct participation in his own independent expenditure committee.
"[T]he people who don't hold office now could be pretty closely involved in the creation of a super PAC," Biersack said. "They could do as Jeb Bush is doing now for fundraising events, raising donations that are sizable from individuals, corporations, unions."
The 2016 fundraising landscape will feature traditional campaign committees, alongside the unlimited-donation super PACs. And beyond those two vehicles, more fundraising options abound: there's also the leadership PAC, the 527 organization, the 501(c)(4). And if the alphabet soup of committees isn't confusing enough, the current roster of presidential hopefuls can have multiple groups, choosing the fundraising architecture that best serves their needs. Bush, for instance, has a couple of organizations that share the same name - "Right to Rise" - which is both a super PAC and a leadership PAC.
One potential 2016 frontrunner who has none of these groups set up so far is Hillary Clinton, former secretary of state and current ambassador for the philanthropic Clinton Foundation, which she runs alongside her husband and daughter. Though she is widely expected to raise enormous sums of money for her campaign, she has not done so yet.
But two entities - Ready for Hillary and Priorities USA (both super PACs) - have been raising and spending money to lay the groundwork for her possible bid for the White House. They are not officially affiliated with the presumptive Democratic nominee, but they will be able to pass on their financial help to the candidate if and when she makes her candidacy official.
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