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Policy Brief


Democratic Institutions

The Landscape of Campaign Contributions

Interim Report

A Report by the Committee for Economic Development of The Conference Board

November 2016

November 02, 2016

Following the landmark Citizens United ruling, corporations have not participated in campaign finance activities to the extent that many expected. In fact, major companies are not making independent expenditures, and very few public companies are contributing to Super PACs. The Committee for Economic Development conducted an analysis of financial activity in the 2014 elections, as well as a preliminary analysis in the 2016 cycle, from January 2015 through July 2016. It did so to gain further insight into the behavior of corporations and business organizations, as well as other participants, in the wake of Citizens United. The findings are presented in this interim report, The Landscape of Campaign Contributions.


About The Committee for Economic Development

The Committee for Economic Development of The Conference Board (CED) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, business-led public policy organization that delivers well-researched analysis and reasoned solutions to our nation’s most critical issues.

Since its inception in 1942, CED has addressed national priorities to promote sustained economic growth and development to benefit all Americans. CED’s work in those first few years led to significant policy accomplishments, including the Marshall Plan, the economic development program that helped rebuild Europe and maintain the peace; and the Bretton Woods Agreement that established the new global financial system and both the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Today, CED continues to play an important role through its trusted research and advocacy. Composed of leading business executives, CED lends its voice and expertise on pressing policy issues. In recent decades, CED has made significant contributions across a broad portfolio, including pre-K education importance and funding, bipartisan campaign reform, corporate governance reform, US fiscal health, academic standards in K-12 education, postsecondary education access and achievement, the importance of STEM education, immigration, free trade, foreign assistance, women on corporate boards, Medicare and broader healthcare reform, crony capitalism, inequality, judicial selection reform, child care, the role of business in promoting educational attainment, digital learning, teacher compensation and quality, corporate short-termism, federal tax reform, social security, innovation and growth, reducing global poverty, welfare reform, and more.

CED’s work is based on seven core principles: sustainable capitalism, long-term economic growth, efficient fiscal and regulatory policy, competitive and open markets, a globally competitive workforce, equal economic opportunity, and nonpartisanship in the nation’s interest. CED’s research findings are disseminated widely, achieving tangible impact at the local, state, and national levels.

For close to 50 years, CED has examined the problems associated with campaign finance and advocated solutions to improve the means by which our elections are funded and to restore public confidence in our electoral system. As part of its long-standing concern about the role of money in our political process and its effects on the health and vitality of our democracy, CED decided to explore the influence of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision on corporate and interest group spending in federal elections.


The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision created a new regulatory environment for campaign finance. The Court’s opinion affirmed the right of corporations and, by extension, labor unions, to spend money independently to advocate the election or defeat of specific candidates. It also paved the way for the rise of Super PACs, which are political committees established solely to make independent expenditures in support of candidates and are thus permitted to accept contributions that are not limited by federal contribution limits. Citizens United opened the door for companies, trade associations, nonprofit organizations, labor unions, and individuals to spend unlimited amounts of money independently in support of candidates or make unlimited contributions to Super PACs and other organizations, which can use these donations to advocate the election of specific candidates. Critics of the Citizens United decision predicted that the ruling would unleash a flood of corporate and interest group spending in federal elections. Has this proven to be the case?

To discern the effects of Citizens United and better understand the changes taking place in campaign finance, we conducted an analysis of financial activity in the 2014 election, as well as a preliminary analysis of the financial activity in the 2016 election cycle from January 2015 through July 2016. Specifically, we examined the independent expenditure activity and Super PAC contributions in these two elections to gain deeper insight into the behavior of corporations and business organizations, as well as other participants, in the wake of Citizens United. As part of our analysis, we examined more than 1,900 organizational donations to Super PACs in 2014 and more than 1,700 donations through July 2016. This report presents our findings, which will be supplemented by a further examination after the 2016 election, when additional data are available.

Campaign Finance in the 2014 Election

Limited Sources

The vast majority of money raised in federal elections comes from limited, publicly disclosed contributions made by individuals in accordance with federal contribution limits. In the 2014 election, a total of $4.6 billion was raised or spent to elect candidates to federal office. Eighty-two percent of this total, $3.7 billion, came from donations made by individuals to candidates, political party committees, and PACs that were restricted by federal contribution limits. 

Labor unions were the largest organizational donors to Super PACs in 2014. Labor unions contributed $65 million to the top Super PACs, which represented more than 10 percent of all monies received by these committees. When compared to the total amount received by Super PACs from organizational donors (i.e., sources other than individual donors), labor unions were responsible for one out of every three dollars received from organizational donors. Labor unions gave about three times more money to Super PACs than businesses and business organizations.

Groups or organizations that were allowed to receive unlimited contributions raised or spent $840 million in 2014, which represented 18 percent of all federal campaign funding. Most of this sum was raised by Super PACs, which were responsible for 80 percent of the monies that came from unlimited sources and about 15 percent of the total funding in 2014.

Independent Spending

Unlimited Sources

Although the Citizens United decision allowed corporations to use their resources to finance independent expenditures in support of political candidates, businesses have not responded to the Citizens United decision by engaging in such spending. No major corporation or publicly held company spent money in support of a candidate in the 2014 elections, and only two private companies spent more than $100.

Trade associations financed $41 million of independent expenditures in 2014, with most of this sum spent by one business association. In all, the monies spent independently by trade associations and individual companies combined constituted less than 5 percent of the monies that came from unlimited sources in 2014 and less than 1 percent of the total campaign funding in 2014.

Sources of Super PAC Funding — 2014 vs. 2016

CED analyzed the contributions received by the top Super PACs during the entire 2014 election cycle and the first 19 months of the 2016 election cycle. The top 54 committees in 2014 raised $585 million and the top 63 committees through July 2016 raised $851 million, which represented 87 percent of all money raised by Super PACs in 2014 and more than 85 percent of all Super PAC receipts in the early stages of 2016.

Most of the money raised by the top Super PACs comes from individual donors. In 2014, 61 percent of the monies raised by Super PACs from disclosed, itemized contributions of $200 or more came from individual donors. In 2016, 83 percent of their itemized donations came from individual donors. 

There has been no change in business behavior in the early stages of the 2016 election with respect to independent spending. Only one company has spent money independently in support of a candidate, reporting total expenditures of less than $10,000. Only one trade association has made independent expenditures, spending a total of $16 million.

Through July 2016, labor unions have contributed $16 million to Super PACs, which is substantially less than their total for 2014. Since unions typically contribute funds for general election activities, we expect this amount to rise, but we do not expect unions to achieve the marginal advantage over other organizational sources of funding that was realized in 2014.

Corporations and trade associations gave $24 million to the top Super PACs in 2014, which represented about 4 percent of the total receipts of these committees. Through July 2016, business sources and trade associations had contributed $71 million, which represented less than 10 percent of the monies raised by the top Super PACs, but was three times the amount contributed by business sources in 2014. The vast majority of these sums came from private companies, primarily small businesses, local realty services, law firms, and limited liability corporations. More than half of the money contributed by businesses in 2016 went to Super PACs established to support Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio in the Republican presidential primary contest.

Large corporations or publicly held companies were a minor source of Super PAC money. Only 36 publicly held companies made contributions to Super PACs in 2014, while 33 have made contributions through July 2016. These companies gave a total of $4.6 million in 2014 and $5.3 million in 2016, which made up less than 1 percent of Super PAC receipts. In each of these elections, three companies were responsible for a substantial majority of the sum contributed by these corporations.

Sixteen Fortune 500 companies made a contribution to a Super PAC in 2014, while 11 of these largest corporations have made a contribution in 2016. 


Even after Citizens United, most of the money raised and spent to support candidates in federal elections comes from individual donations subject to contribution limits and disclosed to the public. The major change that has taken place with respect to campaign funding is the rise of Super PACs, which are subject to public disclosure rules and are responsible for a substantial majority of the unlimited money that is used to advocate candidates for federal office. Individual donors have spurred the growth of Super PACs, particularly wealthy individuals willing to give large sums, who are the source of a majority of Super PAC funding. When the amounts contributed by individuals to Super PACs that we have identified is are added to the limited contributions made to candidates, political parties, and PACs, individual donors were the source of at least 88 percent of the campaign money in the 2014 election.

Our analysis of the information available from federal disclosure reports indicates that the business community has not responded to the new regulatory environment by allocating substantial sums to independent political campaigning or Super PAC donations. In our view, corporate behavior has not changed significantly due to Citizens United. Large corporations or publicly held companies have not engaged in independent spending or contributed large sums to Super PACs. The vast majority of the money contributed by business sources is from private companies, including many smaller businesses that contribute relatively modest sums.

Nonprofit organizations, which are not required to disclose their sources of funding but do disclose the amounts they spend in support of candidates, have become a significant source of candidate support. This is a cause for concern, since more money may flow to these organizations in future elections, given their lack of transparency and accountability to the public. 

CED believes that all participants in elections, including corporations, labor unions, trade associations, and other organization, should act responsibly in the political process. We prefer that political activity by these organizations be conducted through a policy of direct expenditures rather than indirect spending through third party organizations. This approach promotes accountability in political funding and provides voters with information on the sources of funding behind the communications being distributed in an election.