PACs and Super PACs

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There are several different political organizations that influence elections in the United States on a federal and a state level. These organizations can take the form of Political Action Committees (PACs), Super PACs or 501(c) groups.

Political Action Committees

Political Action Committees (PACs) are political committees established and administered by corporations, labor unions, membership organizations or trade associations. The general definition is a group that spends money on elections, but is not run by a party or individual candidate. However, PACs can donate money to parties or candidates they support. These committees raise funds either from individuals associated with the corporation (Separate Segregated Funds) or from any individuals who wish to contribute to the committee (Nonconnected PACs).[1] Nonconnected PACs are financially independent and pay for themselves via the contributions they raise. Separate segregated funds are funded by the organization they are associated with.[2]

In addition, PACs can be broken down into multi-candidate and non multi-candidate categories.

Multi-candidate PACs

Multi-candidate PACs are those that have:[3]

  • over 50 contributors
  • been registered with the FEC for at least 6 months
  • (excluding state party committees) donated to at least 5 federal office candidates.

Multi-candidate PACs can contribute:[3]

  • $5,000 to each candidate or candidate committee per election
  • $15,000 to the national party committee per calendar year
  • $5,000 (combined limit) to state, district and local party committee per calendar year
  • $5,000 to any other political committee per calendar year

Non multi-candidate PACs

Non multi-candidate PACs can contribute:[3]

  • $2,600 to each candidate or candidate committee per election (indexed for inflation)
  • $32,400 to national party committee per calendar year (indexed for inflation)
  • $10,000 (combined limit) to state, district and local party committee per calendar year
  • $5,000 to any other political committee per calendar year

Top PACs in 2013-2014

Open Secrets lists the top PACs that have thus far contributed to candidates in the 2013-2014 election cycle. As of August 2013, the top five are:[4]

  • Northrop Grumman
  • American Federation of Teachers
  • AT&T Inc
  • National Beer Wholesalers Association
  • International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers

Super PACs

Super PACs

American Bridge 21st CenturyAmerican CrossroadsAmerican Unity PACCampaign for Primary AccountabilityClub for Growth ActionCongressional Leadership FundCooperative of American Physicians IE CommitteeCrossroads GenerationEnding Spending Action FundEndorse LibertyFair Share ActionFreedomWorks for AmericaGovernment Integrity FundHouse Majority PACIndependence USA FundLeague of Conservation VotersLiberty for All PACMajority PACNational Association of RealtorsNEA Advocacy FundNextGen Climate ActionNow or Never PACPlanned Parenthood VotesReady for HillaryRepublicans for a Prosperous AmericaRestore America's Voice PACSEIU Pea-FederalWomen Vote!Workers' Voice

Super PACs are also known as Independent Expenditures Only Committees (IEOCs). These PACs can accept unlimited contributions and spend an unlimited amount supporting or opposing federal election candidates, but they cannot directly donate to federal candidates or parties. As of 2012, there are more than 400 active Super PACs.[5]

Top Super PACs in 2014

Open Secrets lists the top Super PACs thus far in the 2014 election cycle. As of August 2013, here are the top five:[6]

Younger voters forming Super PACs

In 2012, groups like Restore Our Future, American Crossroads and Priorities USA spent millions — reshaping the campaign landscape around the chase of big — often older and male — donors. Now, America’s youth are ready and eager to get in on the game.[7]

In the month of August 2013, four super PACs were formed by people younger than 35 with the intention of advocating for young people. Often, the idea is to push back against political parties they say are drifting off course.[7]

“When we’re talking about people our age, in their mid-20s to 30s, a lot of the candidates don’t represent exactly what we want,” said Sarah Ponn, 25, president of Pass the Torch PAC in Manchester, New Hampshire[7] Frustrated with what she sees as parties and politicians that are disinterested in the needs of young people, Ponn, 25, started a super PAC with two of her friends.[7] She says her group wants to re-brand the message of the Republican Party. They want to see the economy back on track, student loan rates fixed and politicians taking their focus off of social issues. “We’re trying to steer clear of issues like abortion and gay marriage,” she said. “With a lot of candidates … it’s hard to separate out what they really stand for and to get behind them for everything.[7]

“That’s why we went with a super PAC,” Ponn added. “It gives us that ability to step outside the party lines.”

It’s a sentiment young super PACs from both parties share: National candidates either don’t align with their views, or they don’t prioritize the issues that matter to them.[7]

For Brandon Anderson’s super PAC, Millenials for America, in Rock Island County, Illinois, those issues are achieving comprehensive immigration reform and reducing government intrusion in people’s lives; two things he says are important to the 20- and 30-somethings in his area.

“We’ve noticed that a lot of the younger people, even though most people around here identify as Democrats, when you actually ask them, they’re a lot more libertarian,” Anderson said. He hopes maybe his super PAC will help drum up some younger candidates to advocate for those issues, or at least lend a voice to the issues of an age group he thinks has been shut out of the political system.[7]

Ragheb Baio, 29, says he started Republican Youth for a Conservative Tomorrow PAC because he was tired of seeing the GOP put up presidential candidates that come off as close-minded and not relatable.[7] “Stupid things have been said, like legitimate rape, and Romney’s [47 percent] comments,” Baio said. “At this point, the youth vote and the minority vote have pretty much dismissed conservative views.”[7]

For other groups, like College Democrats of Ohio, forming a super PAC is about being in control of their money.[7]

Pro-Democratic spending vs. pro-conservative spending

As of November 2013, Pro-Democratic Super PACs have been spending more than pro-conservative PACs. Thus far, they have spent $10.8 million and 70% of all "dark money". Dark money is spent by non-profits that do not have to disclose their donor lists. During the 2012 election cycle, pro-conservatives outspent liberal groups 2-1. However, pro-Republican groups have been spending slowly this year, following Romney's presidential loss in 2012. This lull is not expected to last as the 2014 election cycle heats up.[8]


501(c)(3) groups refer to the IRS code in which their income tax exemptions are defined. The code defines these groups as: "charitable, religious, educational, scientific, literary, testing for public safety, fostering national or international amateur sports competition, and preventing cruelty to children or animals."[9]

501(c)(3) groups cannot engage in political campaigning the way that PACs and super PACs can. They cannot contribute monetarily to campaigns, nor can they endorse candidates or parties. 501(c)(3) groups can engage in non-partisan activities that encourage political engagement, such as voter registration drives.[10]


501(c)(4) groups refer to the IRS code in which their income tax exemptions are defined. The code defines these groups as civic leagues and social welfare organizations.[11] These groups have the same political activity restrictions that the 501(c)(3) groups have.

An example of a 501(c)(4) group is Organizing for Action.