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How Super PAC's rake it in

Super PACs raised about $181 million in the last two years — with roughly half of it coming from fewer than 200 super-rich people.

Those are the findings in a new study that confirms what public interest groups have long feared and campaigns are learning the hard way in 2012 — that the cash for big-ticket campaign spending like TV advertising is increasingly controlled by an elite class of super-rich patrons not afraid to plunk down a million bucks or more for favored candidates and causes.

Last year alone, just 32 donors gave $34 million — and that’s not including an eight-figure donation from billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson in January.

The concentration of donors was discovered in Federal Election Commission filings analyzed by two nonprofit groups, U.S. Public Interest Research Group and Demos that are pushing to strengthen disclosure and spending rules. Their results appear in a report published Wednesday that maps where super PACs are getting their cash.

Alongside individuals, corporations chipped in another $17 million last year. And unions kicked in $6 million. Another $2 million came from more shadowy sources difficult to trace, according to the report.

Expect “an unprecedented surge” in cash, particular secret money, later this year as Election Day approaches, predicted a co-author of the report, Blair Bowie of U.S. PIRG, pointing to 2010 patterns. As campaigns brace for that deluge, here’s a primer on the five ways the new outside groups are pulling in money — from secret gifts to transparent donations — and why each might be attractive to a donor:

Individuals

A relatively few wealthy backers are keeping super PACs afloat — and they’re saying so. Last year alone, individuals gave super PACs $63 million.

That includes 15 people who gave $1 million or more, such as DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg, who gave $2 million to Priorities USA Action, the super PAC supporting President Barack Obama, and John Paulson, a hedge fund billionaire who gave $1 million to a super PAC supporting Mitt Romney’s GOP presidential campaign, according to FEC reports.

The figures don’t even include the $10 million that Adelson and his wife gave from their personal accounts to the super PAC supporting Newt Gingrich’s GOP presidential campaign after the year-end FEC reports.

Giving from a personal account, rather than a corporate or non-profit account, is seen as a way for wealthy corporate types to shield their business interests from the controversy that such mega-donations can bring. But it doesn’t always work, as New Balance Chairman James Davis found out last year, when his sneaker company penned an apology to gay activists upset by his $500,000 contribution to the pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future.

Big personal donations also can be a way to advertise support for a candidate, said Foster Friess, a Wyoming mutual fund guru who is a major donor to super PACs supporting Rick Santorum’s GOP presidential campaign.

“I can say I endorse Rick Santorum and am going to vote for him, but it means a little more if I put up some green for him. There’s no need for me to be surreptitious about this,” said Friess, who had given $381,000 to a pair of super PACs supporting Santorum, according to FEC disclosures covering through the end of last year. Friess said he’s given more since then, and will continue giving as long as Santorum “needs me.”

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