By Aug. 6, 2010, groups registered as social welfare organizations, or 501(c)(4)s, as well as super PACs funded entirely by them, had reported spending $8.5 million. That figure has soared to $24.9 million in this cycle.
In 2008, nondisclosing groups reported spending $8.3 million at this point in the campaign season.
In addition, the numbers show a clear break from those of previous cycles in that
independent expenditures (ads explicitly calling for the election or defeat of a particular candidate) make up the vast majority of the spending reported by nondisclosing groups. Spending for electioneering communications -- "issue ads" that name a federal candidate and are run within a 60-day window before a general election, or 30 days before a primary or a national party nominating convention -- has fallen as a share of the total.
Any group claiming 501(c)(4) status under the Internal Revenue Code is supposed to spend less than half its budget on political activity, such as independent expenditures. However, as OpenSecrets Blog has described, some groups spend much of their money on issue ads, and also fund other tax-exempt groups with similar political philosophies that in turn spend their money on advertising.
The increase in the overall reported spending by nondisclosing groups this cycle is likely attributable in great part to the fact that this is a presidential election year. An additional factor may be that this is the first full election cycle since the January 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC and other legal developments freed up fundraising and spending by outside groups.
The numbers reported to the FEC don't include the bulk of what the groups have spent. It excludes any money spent on electioneering communications that fell outside the 30-day pre-primary window. Most estimates put that amount at more than $100 million so far this cycle.
Still, the reported numbers are one barometer of the increase in spending by outside entities in this cycle over 2010.
Our figures don't include spending by super PACs that are "partial" disclosers that receive a large part of their funding -- but not the entirety -- from non-disclosing groups. Groups like FreedomWorks for America and Women Vote!, for example, do not factor into our totals, though they are funded heavily by nondisclosing groups.
Much more spending is yet to come, if 2012 is anything like 2010. Nondisclosing groups reported to the FEC that they spent $130 million for the whole 2010 election cycle, and 93 percent of it was unleashed after Aug. 6.
If that pattern holds true, more than $300 million in political spending will be reported to the FEC by groups that do not have to disclose their donors and are not supposed to have politics as their primary function. Much more money will never be reported, except in vague summaries months -- or even years -- from now, when these groups file their tax forms with the IRS.