Americans are, for the most part, completely unaware of just who -- or what -- is funding the 2012 presidential campaign.
Just 25 percent of likely voters say they have heard "a lot" about outside spending this election cycle, according to a new poll from the Pew Research Center, while a huge majority said they have either heard little or "nothing at all" about outside expenditures by groups not associated with the candidates or campaigns.
In fact, despite the significant role super PACs -- political action committees that can accept unlimited political donations -- have already played in the 2012 congressional and presidential campaigns, nearly half of the respondents (46 percent) could not identify the term, while another 14 percent gave incorrect responses (1 percent of respondents apparently thought it referred to video games for smartphones.)
But while those statistics don't appear to play well in a campaign finance system that appears to be increasingly dependent on outside spending -- to the point that several political transparency groups expect 2012 to be the most expensive election cycle to date -- Nick Nyhart, the president of the nonpartisan Public Campaign, said Americans are very aware that there is a flow of special interest money influencing this election, even if they cannot specifically name what those interests are.
Outside spending will make up a far larger proportion of the total spent in the 2012 election than in previous cycles, the Center for Responsive Politics reports. As of now, the campaigns for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama have, together, raised about $608 million, compared to the more than $1.1 billion raised at this point by the candidates during the 2008 election. Spending by outside groups, expected to reach a minimum of $750 million, is making up the difference.
What makes outside spending questionable is the fact that all of that money is coming from only a handful of people. Just 47 people (who gave $1 million donations) account for 57 percent of money raised by super PACs from individuals, according to a new report from Demos and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. Of the approximately $230 million raised by super PACs, about 1,000 donors who gave $10,000 or more were responsible for 94 percent of that fundraising.