The rise of the super PAC was also the rise of the politically active billionaire. Dropping the old restrictions on who could give how much to whom did more than turn the attentions of fundraisers from millionaires to billionaires. It also freed billionaires to be more than mere donors. They could now become political entrepreneurs in their own right.
There seem to be a lot of billionaire donors these days. Is this new?
Not entirely. The tiny slice of the population made up of the very rich has always provided a hugely disproportionate share of campaign funds. There is nothing new about that. What has changed in recent decades is that their share has been increasing. In 1980 the richest .01 percent of Americans accounted for about 15 percent of all campaign contributions, a share that rose to about 30 percent over the next thirty years. Then came Citizens United and SpeechNow. In just the next two years the .01 percent's share of contributions shot up to more than 40 percent.1
The upward trend continued into 2015. Two analyses of midyear reports submitted to the FEC in June 2015 by presidential candidates and the super PACs that support them made the pattern clear. The New York Times's analysis reported that just 358 families, those who gave $100,000 or more, provided "well over half" of all the money contributed to the Republican and Democratic presidential campaigns in the first six months of the year.2
A more detailed study, by the Campaign Finance Institute (CFI), reported a similar finding: the 376 donors who gave $100,000 or more provided 54 percent of the money contributed to the candidate committees and super PACs of both parties. The CFI analysis also shows the striking difference between the two parties. The Democrats had only thirty-five $100,000-plus donors, and they accounted for only 21 percent of all Democratic contributions. The 441 Republican donors who gave that much accounted for 64 percent of all Republican contributions. A February 2016 Politico study made another comparison, finding that the 100 biggest donors gave as much as the 2 million small donors combined.3
The role of parties has also changed. From the nineteenth century through the end of the twentieth, there was a clear division of labor in both parties: the rich provided the money, and the parties provided the candidates and ran the campaigns. Rich donors who wanted to be politically active were active in the party.
Today is different. Big donors today give much of their money to super PACs and other non-party groups. Most of the parties' biggest donors still do not want to take on the tasks of picking candidates and running campaigns themselves, but some do. The old division of labor is no longer a good description of the way campaigns are funded.