Wed, Oct 15, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Dark money funds flood of US election ads

With the majority of Congress campaign commercials being financed by groups with undisclosed donors, concerns are mounting about the accountability of contributions to both political parties

By Nicholas Confessore  /  NY Times news service

Illustration: Mountain People

More than half of the general election advertising aired by outside groups in the battle for control of the US Congress has come from organizations that disclose little or nothing about their donors, a flood of secret money that is now at the center of a debate over the line between free speech and corruption.

The advertising, which has overwhelmingly benefited Republican candidates, is largely paid for by nonprofit groups and trade associations, some of which are established with the purpose of shielding the wealthy individuals and corporations that contribute. More money is being spent on advertising by the secret donors than by super PACs, the explicitly political committees whose fortunes have dominated attention with the rise of big money in politics.

According to an analysis by the New York Times of advertising data from the Campaign Media Analysis Group, 55 percent of broadcast advertising in the midterm elections has been paid for by groups that do not fully disclose their donors, compared with 45 percent from super PACs, which are required to file regular financial disclosures with the US Federal Election Commission.

The proportion of advertising flowing through nondisclosing groups is slightly lower than in 2012, a presidential election year with far more spending overall. However, secretly funded ads are widely expected to surge in 2016, when there will be no incumbent running for the White House.

The dominance of secretly funded advertising defies one of the underlying assumptions of the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010, which paved the way for outside groups to raise and spend more money, so long as they did not coordinate with candidates and parties. In the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy envisioned campaigns in which unlimited independent spending by unions and corporations would be paired with robust, real-time disclosure.

“Shareholders can determine whether their corporation’s political speech advances the corporation’s interest in making profits and citizens can see whether elected officials are ‘in the pocket’ of so-called moneyed interests,” Kennedy wrote.


The reality is far different: In race after race, voters are confronted by advertising from an array of groups with generic names and unclear agendas. The groups’ finances are disclosed only on federal tax returns — typically filed more than a year after election day — on a form on which the names of donors are allowed to be redacted.

“There are assumptions in Citizens United that have never happened,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, which supports more robust disclosure. “The assumption that we would have real-time disclosure never happened. When we get to the 2016 election, the dark money is going to greatly explode.”

The advertising data also suggest that while Democrats and Republicans have built formidable outside spending networks since the Citizens United decision, Democrats have aired far more advertising through super PACs, while Republicans have relied significantly more on advertising paid for with secret money. (Both parties also rely on alliances of grassroots nonprofit groups or unions to help turn out voters, spending that is even more difficult to track.) The greater transparency of liberal groups has helped drive a perception that liberal billionaires, not conservative ones, have been the biggest political donors this cycle.

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