The Incredible Negative Spending of Super PACs—in 1 Chart

How belligerent are the independent expenditure groups? Very: Republicans spent more fighting Romney than Democrats have backing Obama.

Voters dislike negative advertising. And voters don't like super PACs very much. But perhaps I repeat myself. Check out this animation of spending by super PACs over time from Northeastern University's Lazer Lab, last seen in this space with another infographic on fundraising. This video breaks super-PAC money down by both partisanship (Democratic vs. Republican) and tone (negative or positive). The video has sound, but I actually recommend listening to it without, unless you enjoy cacophonous cheering and jeering. The figures run through September 13, the latest figures available from the FEC.

There are two things worth zooming in on. First, look at how negative the spending is. Republican super PACs have spent three times as much opposing Obama as they have backing Romney, $46 million to $14 million. The gap is even larger on the Democratic side (though the absolute numbers are much smaller), where there's been nearly $28 million in attacks on Romney and only a little more than $3 million in favor of Obama. The most telling stat -- both in terms of how negative super PACs are and how much Democrats are being outspent -- is that Republican super PACs spent more trying to sink Mitt Romney during the Republican primaries than the president's Democratic allies have spent in favor of him during the entire campaign, $4.7 million to $3.2 million. Here's a screenshot of the state of the race on September 13 (click for larger size):


For super PACs, which are still operating in uncharted and untested legal waters, it's safer to bash a candidate than it is to back one, lest the independent groups come in for charges of coordination with candidates, which is illegal. And negative spending lets the candidates focus their arsenal of spending on positive ads, which are less likely to alienate voters.

It's also surprising how few of the major spenders are big names. There's been extensive coverage of the fact that many super PACs are circumventing disclosure laws to avoid releasing donors' names. But adding another layer of obscurity to all the spending -- in what is set to be a record year for political expenditures -- is just how obscure many of the groups will appear, even to a close political watcher. On the Democratic side, there's Priorities USA Action, the biggest pro-Obama super PAC run by former Obama aides, and super PACs affiliated with major liberal groups like Planned Parenthood, the Service Employees International Union, and the Democratic Governors Association. On the GOP side, there's the Romney-aligned Restore Our Future, Karl Rove's American Crossroads, and the Newt Gingrich-aligned Winning Our Future. But there's also the Campaign for American Values PAC, for example, which is only spending in Iowa and Ohio but is one of the larger players on the right. Among liberals, Texans for America's Future has spent nearly as much as the Human Rights Campaign, a powerful liberal group. Do you know who's paying for the attack ads on your TV?

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David A. Graham is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers political and global news. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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