The Downside of an Early Primary Dash: Super-Secret Super PACs

The 2012 primaries' push into January means we may not know who's funding the candidates' shadow PACs until it's too late NHsnow.banner.jpg
New Year's in Iowa. Campaign ads over Christmas. These are some of the dismal prospects facing campaign junkies now that the 2012 calendar is once again being pushed into early January.

But there's another consequence to the frontloaded primary schedule: A virtual black box for campaign cash.

The first campaign-finance reporting deadline for the new Super PACs, which can accept donations of unlimited size but must report their donors, isn't until Jan. 31.

That's the newly decreed date of Florida's primary, which is expected -- after a lot of early-state jostling and threats of a New Hampshire primary sometime around Halloween -- to be the fifth contest on the calendar.

Thus, that influential -- often decisive -- streak of early-state primaries will be over by the time we find out who gave to the Super PACs.

"This may be the first presidential election where we really have no idea who's funding the campaigns until it's too late," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "By January 31, the first five primaries will be done, the nomination process could be all but over, and we'll just be finding out where most of the money came from."

Many of the super PACs, which are new to this presidential cycle, are explicitly linked to presidential candidates. Mitt Romney has Restore Our Future; Rick Perry has Make Us Great Again; President Barack Obama has Priorities USA Action. All are technically walled off from the campaigns but helmed by former top aides to the candidates; Romney even appeared at a fundraiser for Restore Our Future.

With direct contributions to the campaigns limited to $2,500, it's not hard to imagine that the Super PACs are likely to raise and spend more than the campaigns themselves. Restore Our Future, for example, raised $20 million in the first half of 2011; Romney's campaign raised $18 million. Many of the other candidate-linked Super PACs are so new that they haven't had to report yet.

So while the candidates' direct donors, with their piddling four-figure gifts, will be out in the open sooner, the identities of the really massive givers won't be known until the GOP nomination process is well on its way and possibly sealed. In 2008, John McCain's status as presumptive nominee was pretty much guaranteed by his Jan. 29 Florida victory. Romney dropped out Feb. 7, Mike Huckabee a month later.

For the many transparency advocates who consider federal campaign-finance regulation all but meaningless in the post-Citizens United era, this situation underscores their complaint. It's a world where wealthy individuals and groups can dump cash into thinly veiled campaign organizations, millions of dollars at a time, with disclosure so scant and after-the-fact that it barely registers.

Sure, we'll still know who's giving directly to campaigns. But as Sloan says: "Money raised in $2,500 increments is much less interesting than money raised in million-dollar increments."

Image credit: REUTERS/Jason Reed

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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