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From the poor, now to the big money in politics. This is the first presidential campaign since the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling and it's giving us a good look at how that decision and other court cases have changed politics. A new analysis done in part by NPR shows that since April, most of the TV ads supporting Mitt Romney have come from outside groups, not from Romney's campaign. And those groups raise more than half their money from secret donors.
Here's NPR's Peter Overby.
PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: From April through September, Romney for President aired slightly more than 144,000 ads on broadcast TV. The outside groups ran nearly a quarter million. That enabled Romney to start saving cash for last-minute TV blitz, which is just now begun. Citizens United allowed corporate spending in support of individual candidates, but former Federal Election Commission Chairman David Mason says the big effect was on donors' thinking.
DAVID MASON: I think there are two things going on. One is that the explosion of reported spending sort of encouraged more big donors to get into the space to give large sums of money and be active in politics.
OVERBY: SuperPACs sprang up, soliciting donors for seven or even eight-figure contributions.
MASON: The second thing that occurred is people looking around at the different reporting and other legal consequences.
OVERBY: For donors, the trouble with the superPAC is it has to disclose their names. But other groups do not, the 501(c)(4) tax exempt groups known as social welfare organizations.
MASON: For donors who wanted to spend money on politics, but perhaps not have their names disclosed publicly, the C4 option was much more attractive.
OVERBY: Soon after Citizens United, Karl Rove and other Republican Party leaders founded the 501(c)(4) Crossroads GPS and the superPAC American Crossroads. They became the biggest outside advertisers for Romney, spending an estimated $70 million since April, attacking President Obama on TV. More than half of the money has flowed secretly through Crossroads GPS.
Earlier in the cycle, tax returns from Crossroads GPS showed that nearly 90 percent of its funds came from as few as 16 donors. Two donors gave $10 million each. Sheila Krumholz is director of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics.
SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: I think it defies common sense to think that these, quote, unquote, "social welfare organizations" that exist apparently to attack political candidates, sometimes support political candidates, that they are truly educational or socially oriented. I don't think anybody buys that argument.
OVERBY: NPR and PBS "Newshour" used data from Kantar Media CMAG to do this analysis of the presidential campaign advertising. The analysis shows how Crossroads GPS and another social welfare group split the burden of advertising this year. They alternated a few weeks at a time, almost always putting at least a million dollars per week into anti-Obama ads.
Crossroads partner is Americans for Prosperity, which has the backing of billionaires, David and Charles Koch. And for the 501(c)(4)s, donor secrecy is an essential element. The ads themselves are often indistinguishable from superPAC ads. For example, here's the ad aired most often by any of the outside groups. The superPAC, American Crossroads, spent about eleven and a half million dollars on it.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: And now we have fewer jobs than when he started - what Obama promised versus what he delivered.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: American Crossroads is responsibility for the content of this...
OVERBY: And here's the second most common ad. It's from Crossroads GPS, it costs eight and a half million and it carries a similar message.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Tell President Obama for real job growth, cut the debt. Support the New Majority Agenda at NewMajorityAgenda.org.
OVERBY: The story among Democrats is simpler, 91 percent of the ads have come from the Obama campaign financed with donations that are capped at $5,000 and disclosed. As for liberal outside groups, they spent $3 million from secret donors compared to 87 million by conservative groups.
KRUMHOLZ: Will this money ever be disclosed?
OVERBY: Again, Sheila Krumholz at the Center for Responsive Politics.
KRUMHOLZ: We have no idea the degree to which this is funded by wealthy individuals or, you know, organizations for whom it's far preferential to fly under the radar.
OVERBY: Occasionally, information about secret donors leak out, but those leaks have in no way kept up with the flood in secret contributions.
Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.