Expenditures by super PACs were expected to hit the $100 million mark today, further proof that outside spending will far outstrip anything seen in previous election cycles.
Here's one way to look at how much more is being spent in the 2012 cycle: A single super PAC, the pro-Mitt Romney Restore Our Future, has already spent more -- $44.5 million -- than all outside groups combined had spent by this point in 2008. That 2008 number, about $30.9 million, is roughly one-quarter of this cycle's overall outside spending total of $122.7 million.
And the $100 million spent just by super PACs this cycle is already $30 million more than the entire sum of all outside spending in the 2004 election, the year that the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth 527 organization made a splash with its attacks on Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry.
OpenSecrets.org created the graphic below to help visualize what it all means.
The hard-fought Republican primary, which dragged out longer than many expected, attracted the bulk of the super PAC money. The five top outside spenders, all of them super PACs formed to support one of the GOP candidates, account for $86 million of this first $100 million spent.
The (almost) settling of the GOP nominating contest doesn't mean outside spending has crested; in fact, the evidence indicates that many groups haven't even begun to fight. Of the 26 party-affiliated groups, only 11 have started spending in any races. And of the 158 other, non-super PAC outside groups, 135 have started spending.
But of the 534 super PACs, only 78 have spent a dime on this election so far.
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A number of these so-far dormant super PACs appear to be spoofs -- Cats For A Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, for instance -- but data collected by OpenSecrets.org shows that quite a few are sitting on hoards of cash, apparently waiting for the right moment to jump into the action.
For instance, American Crossroads, the group associated with Karl Rove, has spent about $1 million so far, but still had another $24.3 million remaining as of the end of March. Other examples include the Congressional Leadership Fund, which has raised over $5 million, or the NEA Advocacy Fund, operated by the National Education Association, which has a stash of nearly $3 million.
Bob Biersack, the Center for Responsive Politics' senior fellow, warned that it's not just the groups with fat bank accounts that could be major players in outside spending.
"The changes in the system have meant very large amounts of money can come into the races very quickly, in unpredictable ways," Biersack said, "Because associations, unions, and private corporations can just make payments in ways that just weren't legal before."
In past election cycles, there might be signs that a big spending push was coming, or that a campaign might be gearing up its fundraising operation, or the power of a traditional PAC could be seen by the cash it had on hand, Biersack said. But the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision and other cases removed limits on how much can be contributed to an outside spending group, and by what source. Now, a group can have a sudden impact on a race because of a single large check from a company or union treasury, or an individual. The coming months won't be defined so much by the cash super PACs currently have on hand -- but rather, what money may materialize without warning, Biersack siad.
"There isn't neccesarily going to be any advance notice in terms of who is making plans or spending tomorrow," he said.
Center for Responsive Politics researcher Robert Maguire contributed to this report. Data visualization by Tableau Public.