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This year’s primary elections are getting so nasty that Lithonia Congressman Hank Johnson has taken to calling them "slimary" elections.
In an op-ed on liberal website "The Huffington Post," Johnson, a Democrat, blamed the viciousness on super PACs, political fundraising organizations that can raise unlimited amounts of money from individuals, corporations and unions alike.
"In the last two years, super PACs raised more than $180 million -- with roughly half of it coming from fewer than 200 super-rich people and roughly 20 percent from corporations," Johnson wrote in the Feb. 24 article.
Those are some big bucks, wealthy people, and generous businesses. We wondered if Johnson got his numbers right.
Super PACs became legal after a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision. They are an object of ire for those who think they can be used to buy elections and help donors obscure their identities.
A Johnson spokesman said the congressman got his data from articles in Politico and Roll Call. The stories, which ran Feb. 8, lay out the findings of "Auctioning Democracy: The Rise of Super PACs & the 2012 Election."
The report was authored by left-leaning policy and advocacy group Demos and U.S. Public Interest Research Group, or U.S. PIRG, a consumer advocacy group. It argued that super PACs skew American politics by giving outsize influence to wealthy donors who hold views that do not represent those held by the broader public.
Johnson’s account matched both news accounts’ descriptions of the "Auctioning Democracy" report. One of these descriptions could have been more precise, but they were not unreasonable.
From the advent of super PACs to the end of 2011, donors have contributed a total of $181 million in what are called "itemized individual contributions" to super PACs, the report states. These are contributions from donors who give more than $200. Super PACs must report donor names once their contributions pass this threshold.
The report did not tally contributions by small donors, said Adam Lioz, a Demos official and an author of the report.
Demos and U.S. PIRG found that 196 people donated $100,000 or more to super PACs, which is just shy of 200 individuals. Calling them "super-rich" is polarizing, but it’s reasonable to assume that people who can afford to make a $100,000 donation have unusually high incomes.
We used the report’s findings to calculate that donations of the "super-rich" amounted to about 43 percent of total contributions. This is some 7 percentage points lower than the "roughly half" figure that Johnson used.
For-profit businesses contributed 17 percent of itemized donations, the report states. This is just shy of the 20 percent Johnson cited.
We checked with the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for more transparency in government. It is the source of much of the data used in the report, so we wanted to get the organization’s take on the numbers. A spokesman said they found no problems with the conclusions of "Auctioning Democracy."
But for the sake of due diligence, we compared the report’s numbers to data published by the Center for Responsive Politics, which keeps a rolling tally of super PAC contributions on its website OpenSecrets.org.
The data from the CRP and the "Auctioning Democracy" report are not easy to compare. They track contributions over different time periods, and the CRP tallies a broader pool of contributions.
However, we felt an analysis of the CRP data would give us a rough sense of whether Demos and U.S. PIRG overstated their results to make their case.
First, we looked at the CRP’s count of total super PAC donations.
From 2010 to late February, about $215 million had been donated to super PACs, according to the CRP data. This is about $35 million -- or 20 percent -- more than the data published in "Auctioning Democracy," but this difference did not signal major flaws.
The CRP’s number should be significantly higher than the figures in "Auctioning Democracy." The report excludes donations of $200 or less as well as contributions for the 2012 calendar year. The CRP includes them.
Next, we looked at whether "roughly half" of super PAC donations came from 200 "super-rich" people. The CRP publishes a list of the top 100 super PAC donors for the 2012 election cycle on its website. We found they donated about $74 million so far, or 57 percent of the cycle’s $130 million total.
The count in "Auctioning Democracy" was lower, which suggests that Demos and U.S. PIRG did not overstate the significance of donations from the "super-rich."
We had difficulty using the CRP’s data to check corporate or business donations. The CRP’s Web page lists too few organizations, and does not distinguish between for-profit businesses and groups such as labor unions or advocacy organizations.
Johnson wrote that "[i]n the last two years, super PACs raised more than $180 million -- with roughly half of it coming from fewer than 200 super-rich people and roughly 20 percent from corporations."
On balance, Johnson’s claim reflects the findings of a report by two advocacy groups that are critical of super PACs. The statistics Johnson uses also make sense in light of data published by a separate group.
We give Johnson a True.
Huffington Post, "Georgia Now Ground Zero for Super PACs and Citizens United," Feb. 24, 2012
Politico, "Primer: How super PACs rake it in," Feb. 8, 2012
Roll Call, "Report: Some Super PAC Money Is Untraceable," Feb. 8, 2012
Demos, "Primer: How Super PACs Rake It In," Feb. 8, 2012
Demos, "Auctioning Democracy: The Rise of Super PACs and the 2012 Election," Feb. 8, 2012
Sunlight Foundation, "The presidential super PACs: five takeaways," Feb. 1, 2012
Telephone interview, Adam Lioz, Democracy Program Council, Demos, Feb. 29, 2012
Email interview, Liz Bartolomeo, communications manager, Sunlight Foundation, Feb. 29, 2012
Center for Responsive Politics, OpenSecrets.org Super PACs page, accessed March 1, 2012
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