Special-interest groups spent more in 2010 than any previous election cycle. Special interests spent $281.6 million during the 2010 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In the 2008 presidential election cycle, special interests spent $279.7 million. This is the first time in US election history that special interests have spent more in a midterm cycle than the preceding presidential cycle. Additionally, special interest expenditures in 2010 completely dwarf the most recent midterm cycle in 2006, when special interests spent $59.2 million. In other words, between one midterm cycle to the next midterm cycle, expenditures from special interests more than quadrupled (475%). Clearly, special interests have more influence in US elections than ever before.
The special-interest group with the most expenditures in the 2010 cycle was the Chamber of Commerce, which is a conservative organization that spent $32,851,997. Among the top 10 spending outside groups, 8 of these groups supported conservative candidates. Further, the Chamber of Commerce spent $4.6 million more than the combined total of the 2 liberal special interests in the top 10. The chart below shows the top 10 spending outside groups in the 2010 cycle.
Special interests spent money in two general methods during the 2010 cycle. First, electioneering communications are political broadcasts either 30 days before a primary or 60 days before a general election that expressly advocate for the election or defeat of a specific candidate. Radio, television, or internet commercials are examples of electioneering communications. Second, independent expenditures are contributions that expressly advocate for the election or defeat of a specific candidate, but not from direct or indirect coordination with a candidate’s campaign. Mailing brochures to voters and automated phone calls reminding people to vote are examples of independent expenditures.
While some special interest groups utilize both of these methods to influence elections, most groups focus on one method. For instance, the Chamber of Commerce spent all of its money on electioneering communications, while American Crossroads spent all of its money on independent expenditures. The chart below shows which method each of the top 10 spending special interest groups used in the 2010 cycle.
Lastly, a major explanation for the influx of special interest expenditures in 2010 is due to the Supreme Court’s ruling this past January in Citizen’s United v. Federal Election Commission. This ruling removed the contribution limits on special interests. Without a doubt, special interests took advantage of this change within campaign finance laws. Moreover, if special interests remain unlimited in the 2012 cycle, expect an unprecedented level of influence from the outside that shatters the record books.