If you were running for president at this point in previous presidential races, your instinct was to stockpile cash. With many voters still tuned out, spending money trying to reach them this early in the cycle was wasteful, while building a large campaign war chest was a good way to scare the competition and signal to voters, the press and potential donors that you were a viable candidate. Then, when the race started in earnest in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, you’d burn through a lot of that money on TV ads, automated phone calls and mailers in an attempt to win the nomination quickly.
That’s all changed. With outside groups now able to raise and spend unlimited sums of money, crunch time is coming now, midway through the summer the year before the election. And with an ever-larger cast of characters running for the Republican nomination, candidates are having to work harder than ever to punch through the noise and make the cut for the all-important first debate.
Far from a sleepy time to build up a war chest, the coming month is do-or-die time, especially for candidates near the bottom of the crowded field of GOP hopefuls. That is why so many of the independent groups backing them are willing to spend heavily now, even if it depletes their cash on hand.
For instance, the super PAC supporting Bobby Jindal reported $461,000 going out the door on Tuesday alone to bolster his chances. The Louisiana Governor just last week joined the crowded field and has little name recognition outside of his home state. If he doesn’t improve soon, he could be shut out of the first debate, which is limited to the top 10 contenders based on an average of recent polls.
A TIME review of documents filed between June 1 and midday June 30 shows candidate-specific super PACs shelled out $1.3 million on digital ads, automated phone calls, mail pieces and telephone lines. Spending against Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton from just four outside groups totaled almost three-quarters of $1 million in June alone—a potential sign how much tea party-style Republicans despise her and establishment-minded ones fear her.
While June’s tally pales in comparison to the billions the 2016 White House race will eventually cost, it is unusual to see the outside groups spending so heavily, so soon. After all, the first chance to officially weigh-in on the GOP nominee is the Iowa caucuses scheduled for Feb. 1, 2016.
Yet these super PACs aren’t necessarily targeting the conservative activists in Iowa or New Hampshire. While a good chunk of the change spent in the last month has been there, just as much is going to boost the candidates’ profiles nationally. The super PACs give anyone with a patron with deep pockets a shot, yielding a larger field than during the pre-super PAC era. And that means the television networks hosting the coming debates needed to cull the list of participants.
Enter the super PACs, trying to remedy a problem of their own creation. Their goal is to raise familiarity with each’s preferred contender enough so that he or she qualifies for the first debate. Under the current rules, only the top 10 contenders in national polls—in a crowded field now numbering 14 and expected to climb—will make the stage on Aug. 6 in Cleveland.
It’s why boosters for Jindal, who entered the race last week, are sending cash to his main advertising firms. At the same time, supporters of Rick Perry told the FEC they accounted for $578,000 in June spending; they are trying to make sure the former Texas Governor qualifies for the debates during his second White House bid. Boosters for Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas spent $13,126 during the last four weeks, too.
For others, it’s about maintaining a lead. Allies of Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky reported spending $240,000 last month on 40 staffers in Iowa, $17,500 for voter contact information and phone calls, and another $3,000 on fliers to leave at potential supporters front doors.
And these totals only account for spending by super PACs, the independent groups that can raise and spend unlimited sums of cash as long as they don’t coordinate strategy with the official campaigns. A network of nonprofit, politically-minded groups are also engaged at this point. For instance, a nonprofit backing Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida is running more than $1 million in ads promoting his opposition to the Obama Administration’s emerging deal with Iran on its nuclear program. Because the Conservative Solutions Project doesn’t specifically advocate for Rubio’s election, that group does not face an FEC reporting requirement.
While the race is most dynamic among the Republicans, Democrats are spending cash, too. A group backing former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley reported spending almost $56,000 on Internet ads criticizing a rival for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and promoting his own record.
Yet the biggest target of all the outside groups is, not surprisingly, Clinton. The former Secretary of State faced roughly $753,000 in spending against her from just four outside groups. The Tea Party Majority Fund reported $400,000 in automated phone calls from Hawaii to Maine to criticize her. The Stop Hillary PAC spent $145,000 to find potential supporters and to send them mail and online ads. The Freedom Defense Fund spent more than $130,000 in June on a national direct-mail campaign. And the Republican National Committee reported $78,000 in spending on an advertising campaign in voters’ mailboxes, as well as on Yahoo, Facebook and Twitter.
In all, June was at least a $3 million investment for the outside groups. And that number does not account for a single dime that the candidates—the folks whose names are actually on the ballot—spent.
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