An analysis released this week by Democracy 21, the Campaign Legal Center and the Center for Responsive Politics suggests that key supporters of each candidate's campaign have used the super PACs to greatly exceed the comparatively modest amounts they are allowed to give each candidate directly under federal law.
Political soft money, such as donations to political action committees and ideological groups, has long been criticized for essentially rendering campaign contribution limits obsolete. But with the advent of so-called super PACs and politically oriented nonprofits, donors now have unparalleled abilities to give almost unlimited amounts to help a favored candidate.
Under new campaign contribution limits established this year, a donor is allowed to give $2,500 directly to a presidential candidate for the primary and another $2,500 for the general election. Add in contributions to political parties and conventional political committees, and a donor can legally give $117,000 in regulated political contributions every two years.
But super PACs, groups designed to spend primarily on advertising that were made possible by a series of judicial decisions last year, are not subject to such limits.
For instance, Hollywood executive Jeffrey Katzenberg maxed out with a $5,000 donation to Obama's re-election campaign. But he later followed up with $2 million in contributions to Priorities USA Action, a Democratic committee founded by former Obama staffers.
He also solicited at least $500,000 in contributions from friends and colleagues and presented them to Obama - a process known as bundling.
Romney's PAC, too, had a seven-figure benefactor: Massachusetts businessman Edward Conard, who contributed $1 million to pro-Romney PAC Restore Our Future, in addition to $5,000 in direct contributions to the candidate himself.
The study conducted by the Center for Responsive Politics and its partners found that nearly three-quarters of the donors who gave to Romney's super PAC also had donated to Romney himself, using the committee to augment their initial legally regulated donations.
"This analysis offers yet more proof that these candidate-specific Super PACs are nothing more than an end-around existing contribution limits," Paul S. Ryan, Federal Election Commission program director at the Campaign Legal Center, said in a statement.
In all, the analysis found at least 64 donors who contributed to the candidates directly and followed up with nearly $9 million to either Romney or Obama-affiliated Super PACs.
Super PACs report only twice annually during off election years, meaning other groups established for candidates such as Texas Gov. Rick Perry have not yet filed reports.
Read more California investigative reports at CaliforniaWatch.com.