Super PACs Dominate Ad Spending in 2016:Report

By Llewellyn Hinkes-Jones

Aug. 26 — The volume of ads sponsored by outside groups grew exponentially since 2000, with super political action committees providing the lion's share of spending in the last two election cycles, a new report from the Wesleyan Media Project and the Center for Responsive Politics shows.

In total, there were more than 2 million ads aired for the 2016 election cycle so far, 9 percent more than in 2012, with $1.56 billion being spent. Ads in presidential, Senate, and House races were down from 2012, but an increase of 40 percent more ads in governors' races made up the difference.

Domination by Outside Spending

Outside groups sponsored more than 30 percent of all congressional ads in 2016 primary and general elections, more than twice the portion of spending they accounted for in 2004 and over five times that of 2002.

Whereas 527 groups dominated spending in 2004, their presence has been relegated to a footnote in recent races with no spending since 2012. Super PACs now fund 73 percent of all ad buys. Ad spending by regular PACs and nonprofit groups (501(c)5, 501(c)6 groups) has also diminished considerably.

PACs represented almost 30 percent of ad buys in 2000, but only 3 percent of 2012 and 2016. Nonprofit 501cs went from 63 percent in 2000 to 24 percent in 2016.

The report called dark money groups—501(c)4 and other groups that don't disclose their donors—“a consistent but growing presence since 2000,” with the number of ads funded with dark money increasing by 142 percent between federal election years 2008 and 2012. Between 2014 and 2010, it increased over 70 percent.

Few groups repeated their presence in election cycles, with almost 80 percent only showing up for one election.

To contact the reporter on this story: Llewellyn Hinkes-Jones in Washington at:

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at

For More Information

The Wesleyan Media Project and Center for Responsive Politics report can be viewed at

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