By Patricia Tolson
In a little over one year, the 2024 presidential election cycle will come to an end. In the meantime, some experts predict that a combination of super PAC spending, dark money contributions, and something called “The Trump Factor” will make 2024 the most expensive election cycle in American history.
As it stands, current polling suggests the GOP candidate who will likely face off against incumbent President Joe Biden in 2024 is former President Donald Trump.
The largest political action committee (PAC) supporting President Joe Biden is Priorities USA.
According to data from the Federal Election Commission (FEC), Priorities USA has taken in $533,465 since January.
Its sister PAC, Priorities USA Action, has total receipts of $1,001,803 from January through June.
Priorities USA Action has also taken in millions from other Democrat super PACs such as ActBlue, which has itself raked in total contributions of $312,174,821 from January through June.
Another pro-Biden PAC, Future Forward PAC, posted total receipts of $67,163 in the same period. Future Forward USA Action has received $55,798.
President Trump relies more on contributions gathered by his own entities from individual donors rather than becoming dependent on outside PACs.
One PAC supporting President Trump is his own Save America PAC. FEC data shows that this PAC has taken in $53,869,268 in individual contributions from Jan. 1 through June 3o. Of that, $2,233,831 was disbursed to the Save America PAC, and another $29,235,083 was given to the Donald J. Trump for President 2024 PAC.
Donald J. Trump for President 2024 PAC has total receipts of $32,164,175 in this period.
On Oct. 4, the Trump campaign boasted an intake of “more than $45.5 million in the third quarter with over $37.5 million cash on hand.”
The question remains: How much of an impact will PAC spending have on the outcome of the election?
‘Why Are They Doing This?’
An analysis of year-end disclosures by OpenSecrets, filed with the FEC and published Feb. 7, found that the 2022 midterm elections cost more than $8.9 billion, surpassing the inflation-adjusted $6.7 billion spent by PACs during the 2018 midterms.
During the 2021–2022 cycle, OpenSecrets said 2,476 super PACs raked in $2.7 billion and spent $1.4 billion.
Conservative PACs spent considerably more than liberal PACs, spending $832,350,737 and $468,316,299, respectively.
While PAC spending has increased dramatically over the past few election cycles, Sarah Bryner says big PAC spending doesn’t always translate into victories by their chosen political candidates.
Ms. Bryner, director of research and strategy for OpenSecrets, has extensive experience in database management, experimental research, statistical modeling, and survey analysis, as well as substantial knowledge in lobbying and campaign finance policy.
OpenSecrets is a nonpartisan, independent nonprofit that serves as “the nation’s premier research group tracking money in U.S. politics and its effect on elections and public policy.”
“We have this assumption that the more you spend the more likely it is that you’re going to be able to get the outcome that you want. But that’s just not the case,” Ms. Bryner told The Epoch Times. “You only need to look at one Mike Bloomberg to know it’s not the case because he spent a billion dollars and it essentially made no difference.”
Mike Bloomberg, a self-made billionaire and former New York City mayor, formally announced his presidential bid for the 2020 election on Nov. 24, 2019. Four months later, on March 24, 2020, he abruptly suspended his campaign. According to an April 20, 2020, Federal Election Commission filing, that failed campaign cost him over $1 billion.
For all of the billions spent during the 2022 midterm elections, Democrats only picked up one U.S. Senate seat, and Republicans barely eked out a five-member majority in the House.
When you look at PAC spending in 2022, and what was actually accomplished in congressional races, Ms. Bryner said some may ask, “Why are they doing this?”
“It would be naïve to say that these people are just wealthy folks throwing around their money,” she said. “They’re doing this for a reason.”
One reason Ms. Bryner cited for PAC spending is, of course, to get candidates elected who support a PACs political objectives and who will advocate for legislative measures to facilitate those objectives.
“In the United States we have razor tight majorities in both congressional bodies and the presidency can turn on a dime, as we’ve seen,” Ms. Bryner noted. “So even if it’s not as clear as, ‘I spend more money and I get the outcome I want,’ that spending can be influential, even if it is just that one seat majority in the Senate, and that did make a difference for the Democrats holding the Senate.”
Aside from the effort to get preferred candidates elected, PACs also spend billions to influence public discussion on topics from climate change to abortion.
As Ms. Bryner explained, influencing the public conversation and bringing certain topics to the forefront is a “concerted plan” used by Republicans and Democrats to energize their respective bases for whichever candidate supports the PAC’s perspective.
“You don’t want to be the party that spends less. So, depending on how you look at it, there’s this race to the top or to the bottom with spending on some of these races,” she said.
Looking forward to 2024, The Epoch Times asked Ms. Bryner if PAC spending was going to be bigger and more impactful for the 2024 presidential election cycle than in 2020.
“I don’t think it will be more impactful necessarily for 2024. It’s such a nebulous thing to measure in a lot of ways,” she said.
As OpenSecrets reported in February 2021, the 2020 presidential election cycle was the “most expensive ever,” with $14.4 billion in political spending, more than double the record-breaking total of the 2016 presidential election cycle.
However, on April 24, OpenSecrets reported that Democrats anticipate they will “blow past $2 billion” in 2024, making it their “most expensive election cycle in history.”
“The 2020 presidential elections were absolutely astronomical, breaking records by a longshot,” Ms. Bryner said. “Are we going to see a comedown from that in 2024? It’s hard to tell. It’s really still too early. But I think it will have a lot to do with the Republican presidential primary.”
‘The Left Is Winning’
With such seemingly little bang for their proverbial bucks, Dennis Prager—a nationally syndicated talk show host and founder of the conservative nonprofit PragerU—shared his thoughts on the motivation behind the burgeoning PAC spending.
“Because our government, particularly the federal government, is so massive and has its fingers in virtually every pie of our society, it wields immense power,” Mr. Prager told The Epoch Times, suggesting that “when so much power is at stake, people are going to try to influence the government—either in their favor, or in an effort to get it to leave them alone.”
It’s a perspective he credits to Larry Elder, who he said, “repeats it often.”
“Our Founders never envisioned government becoming so big and running so much interference in the lives of American citizens,” Mr. Prager added. “The vision of the Constitution they crafted meant to accomplish the opposite: small government, big freedom. The bigger the government, the smaller the citizen. As long as it’s big, people are going to try to influence it.”
While the political left is more motivated to further expand government and solidify its power, Mr. Prager believes “the right fears its success because those on the right know the bigger government grows, the more intrusive and permanent the left’s power will be.”
“So both sides have powerful motivation to spend at ever higher levels,” he said, adding that, “as things currently stand, the left is winning.”
Asked if all the spending is worth it, Mr. Prager said it depends on who you ask.
“For the people who spend on this, the assumption has to be that it is,” he said. “People generally don’t spend significant amounts of money on things that don’t matter.”
Personally, he believes the extreme spending is “not productive.”
“That money could be going to far better use,” he said, calling it “a sinful waste of resources.”
‘The Trump Factor’
According to Ms. Bryner, “part of the reason why we saw so much spending in 2020 was because of the Trump factor.”
“He generates a lot of spending by both Republicans and Democrats,” she said. “So, depending on how long he stays in the race and whether he is the nominee, which is expected with a question mark, that will affect how much money is going to be spent.”
If President Trump is not the Republican nominee, Ms. Bryner said “we might see a bit of a deflation” in spending by Democrat PACs because they “won’t be as motivated” to support incumbent President Joe Biden “if the other candidate is not Trump.”
If President Trump is the nominee, she said “it will be more energizing for both parties.”
While Republicans would be energized by the idea of giving President Trump his long-awaited victory over his political enemies by returning him to another term in the White House, Democrats would be inclined to raise money among their base by giving the “I hate Trump” crowd a way to vent with their pocket books.
“That’s what we saw in 2018, 2020, and in 2022, that there is a major Trump effect on fundraising for Democrats,” she said.
Mr. Prager said, “There’s no question that Trump is a lightning rod for both sides. So yes, of course that’s likely to motivate higher spending to both support and defeat him.”
What has never been clear, he added, is why so many Democrats and such a significant number of establishment Republicans find President Trump so threatening.
“Putting aside his often grating personality,” Mr. Prager said, President Trump’s “actual governing was not far outside the Washington mainstream.”
“Yet the drumbeat rhetoric was, and continues to be, that he represents an ‘existential threat’ to ‘our democracy,'” Mr. Prager said. “That means election spending in the 2024 cycle is likely to break all records.”
PACs and Dark Money
Dan McMillan is a former prosecutor, campaign finance expert, and founder of Save Democracy in America.
He says that even though super PACs have to report any funds they receive to the FEC, they “do their best to hide who is behind them.”
“Of course, they often take money from 501(c)(4)s, the most common kind of dark money group, which are not required to reveal the names of their donors,” Mr. McMillan told The Epoch Times.
“Dark money” refers to campaign contributions for which the sources are not disclosed.
According to OpenSecrets, the 2022 election cycle saw over $115 million in dark money contributions from, and spending by, 501(c) groups six months ahead of Election Day. However, less than $3 million was reported to the FEC.
In February 2022, OpenSecrets reported that super PACs from both sides of the political aisle accepted millions from closely-tied dark money nonprofits.
In 2021, OpenSecrets cited the top 15 PACs that were funded by dark money. The pro-Biden Future Forward PAC was one of them.
On Aug. 18, OpenSecrets predicted that “dark money” will “continue to play a pivotal role in 2024.”
During the first half of this year, an OpenSecrets analysis found that politically-active 501(c)(4) nonprofits associated with congressional leadership have already funneled over $16.5 million “from anonymous donors to super PACs spending on 2024 federal elections.”
The primary dark money group aligned with House Democrats, House Majority Forward, dumped another $5.6 million in contributions to House Majority PAC. This accounts for more than a quarter of the $20.7 million of the PAC’s fundraising haul since the beginning of the year.
“Also quite scandalous,” Mr. McMillan said, “is the degree to which super PACs, which are supposed to be independent of candidates they support, in fact closely coordinate with candidates or with the political parties.”
A super PAC aligned with former House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Congressional Leadership Fund, received $2.25 million from American Action Network during the first half of 2023.
American Action Network is a 501(c)(4) dark money group that does not disclose its donors but shares staff, office space, and other resources with the Congressional Leadership Fund.
“The rules of ‘coordination’ are so loose that they’re a complete joke, and both parties are completely brazen about this,” Mr. McMillan said further.
Mr. McMillan also noted that the path to getting membership on choice committees or becoming the ranking chair of choice committees, like the powerful Ways and Means Committee, is not seniority, political talent or mastery of political policies, “it’s being a star fundraiser.”