WASHINGTON — Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has long held that he won’t rely on them, while one of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s blew through nearly $100 million to no avail in the current campaign. The road to the White House is long, hard and expensive and candidates find many ways to fill their coffers — since the 2012 election relying on Super PACs has become one way.

In order to understand what a Super PAC is, it’s helpful to first understand what a PAC is. Political Action Committees, or PACs, are groups of people who want to raise money for their preferred political candidate. PACs can accept donations from individuals, but only up to $5,000 a year. A PAC can donate this money directly to a candidate, give it to another PAC or give it to a political party. But there are also limits on how much the PAC can donate to each one per year.

In 2010, two landmark court cases changed everything about how PACs work. Citizens United v. FEC and SpeechNow.org v. FEC allowed corporations and labor unions, along with individuals, to donate unlimited sums of money to so-called Super PACs.

This has allowed wealthy individuals to spend millions on political advertising and other activities on behalf of their favorite candidate. Some Super PACs have raised tens of millions of dollars, with most of the amount coming from a single wealthy donor.

There are currently more than 2,200 registered Super PACs. But, rules prohibit them from directly giving money to candidates. Instead, they are limited to independent activities, such as paying for political advertising, polling and voter registration drives.

Super PACs aren’t allowed to coordinate their activities directly with candidates for the most part, but both sides find ways to indirectly work or communicate with one another. For example, Super PACs are often led by someone who knows the candidate well and at fundraising events, Super PACs will feature their candidate as a “special guest.”Super PACs and candidates also flout non-coordination rules by publishing polling data to Twitter so the other party can use the information. Or, a candidate may post a video of himself to his YouTube account so that his Super PAC can use the footage in a political ad in support of him.

During the 2012 election, Super PACs spent $596 million to support or oppose candidates. In the 2016 election cycle, as of March 2016 they’ve spent nearly $260 million.
However, raising huge amounts of money doesn’t necessarily translate into support at the polls. Some candidates find that no amount of money and political advertising can boost their popularity.

Note: Polling data was based on mid-March 2016 numbers from Quinnipiac University.

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