What Is an Independent Expenditure Campaign? An Introductory Guide

An independent expenditure campaign is an intriguing and important component of the political and electoral systems of the United States. Understanding how these campaigns work — and the implications they have on those systems — is critical for any entity involved in the political sphere, including candidates, campaigns, grassroots organizations, and political action committees (PACs), so here’s everything you need to know. 

What Is an Independent Expenditure?

According to the Federal Election Commission (FEC), an independent expenditure is an expenditure for a communication, such as an advertisement, that explicitly advocates the defeat or election of a specific candidate and is not run in cooperation or consultation with any candidate, their agents or committees, or a political party committee.

In other words, an independent expenditure must be made and paid for by an entity that is not directly cooperating with a candidate or their agents, and qualifying as an independent expenditure requires that the communication advocate for a specific outcome.

For instance, if a third-party entity runs an advertising campaign in favor of your candidate but is not directly coordinating with your team, such a campaign would be classified as an independent expenditure.

FEC regulations governing independent expenditures cover a wide range of advertising formats, which include the following:

  • TV
  • Digital devices
  • Applications
  • Advertising platforms
  • Direct mail
  • Email
  • Newspapers

Typically, independent expenditure campaigns are orchestrated and paid for by a PAC, such as a separate segregated fund (SSF), nonconnected committee, or party committee.  

How It Works

To reiterate, an independent expenditure campaign involves spending money to support or oppose political candidates without coordinating with any candidate’s campaign. First, an entity would need to form a committee, typically a PAC, which would then engage in fundraising efforts (which are subject to strict FEC regulations).

After the committee has raised the necessary funds, it can invest in marketing content and buy advertising space on its preferred platform. Typically, an independent expenditure campaign will make use of multiple channels, including social media pages, websites, TV, streaming services, and email; many also target voters through direct mail and print ads.

Legal Considerations

The legal landscape that allows for independent expenditure campaigns has evolved significantly over time, marked by landmark court decisions and legislative changes. As such, the concept of independent expenditures emerges from the legal framework intended to regulate campaign finance while preserving free speech rights. 

The Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United vs. The Federal Election Commission stands as perhaps the most influential on the matter, with the Court holding that the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting independent political expenditures by corporations, associations, and labor unions. In turn, the decision paved the way for unlimited spending on independent expenditure campaigns by these entities, fundamentally altering the dynamics of campaign finance in the U.S.

PACs and other committees are limited in how much they can contribute to a candidate or campaign, the standard donation limit being $5,000 per candidate per year. That said, they can spend as much as they like on commercials, advertisements, and other activities designed to sway the outcome of an election when engaging in independent expenditure campaigns, so long as their campaign adheres to FEC rules and does not coordinate with a political candidate or their agent.

Nevertheless, violating that core rule and collaborating directly can expose a committee to significant liability, fines, and other substantial penalties, which means it is vital that any independent expenditure campaigning efforts remain in full adherence with relevant FEC regulations. 

Implications

The rise of independent expenditure campaigns has had profound implications for political races and democracy as a whole. On the one hand, supporters argue that these expenditures represent an exercise of free speech, thereby allowing individuals, corporations, and unions to voice their opinions on political matters without direct affiliation with a campaign. 

On the other, critics raise concerns about transparency and accountability, arguing that the ability to anonymously spend unlimited amounts of money can lead to undue influence over elections and elected officials. 

Reporting and Transparency

As you engage in independent expenditure campaigns, remember that transparency is key. The FEC requires that independent expenditures be reported, which means you must disclose how much you spend, the type of communication you fund, and the candidate you support or oppose. 

Taking a transparent, honest approach can help promote trust in the campaigning process and our democratic processes, while failing to adhere to reporting requirements could inadvertently erode trust in your candidate and expose your committee to liability. 

Comparison With Other Types of Political Spending

Independent expenditure campaigns are distinct from other forms of political spending, such as direct contributions to candidates’ campaigns or coordinated expenditures. Direct contributions are subject to strict limits and reporting requirements, ensuring a degree of transparency, and coordinated expenditures, which are made in collaboration with a candidate’s campaign, are treated as contributions and are similarly regulated. 

By definition, independent expenditures lack direct coordination with candidates, allowing for unlimited spending and a means of powerful expressions of support or opposition in turn.

Targeted Independent Expenditures: The Importance of Data Insights 

Independent expenditure campaigns are powerful tools for mobilizing voters, but seeing as you cannot coordinate directly with the candidate you support, it’s vital that you conduct extensive research to create messaging that is relevant and impactful.

As a leader in political data, Aristotle can provide you with actionable insights designed to inform your independent expenditure campaign efforts. Book a demo of Aristotle today to learn more.


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