The 2016 presidential aspirants and outside groups have already crossed the $1 billion fundraising mark collectively this campaign, blowing by previous election cycles.
At this point in 2012, candidates had collectively raised about $314 million, according to data compiled by the Campaign Finance Institute. In 2008, the last time an incumbent president was approaching the end of his second term, candidates had collectively raised about $812 million.
For Donald Trump, who suggested last August that he might be willing to spend up to $1 billion on his campaign, the new data suggests he could end up needing to do so.
“Super PACs are obviously a big story,” said Brendan Glavin of the Campaign Finance Institute. “To presidential campaigns, they were a new thing in 2012.”
Outside groups have taken in slightly more than $400 million this cycle. The candidates themselves raised about $624 million through February.
Even with the glut of super PAC spending, however, the actual effect of these outside groups on the primary campaign is still an open question at this point, analysts said.
Mr. Glavin said the pro-Jeb Bush Right to Rise USA super PAC was “far and away” the leader in spending. According to the CFI’s calculations, the group has spent about $87 million.
But Mr. Bush ended up suspending his campaign after a disappointing finish in South Carolina in February, leading some to question the extent to which outside groups actually changed the contours of the race so far this year.
“I think the jury’s still out on that,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. “A super PAC doesn’t work unless you have a candidate and a message too.”
On the Democratic side, Sen. Bernard Sanders has repeatedly touted the fact that he does not have a major allied super PAC boosting his candidacy.
Mr. Sanders has tried to make up for that in small contributions to his campaign, which announced in recent days that it raised $44 million in March. That beat the record $43.5 million it raised in February and brought his total haul for the first quarter to $109 million.
Meanwhile, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s campaign announced this week that she brought in $29.5 million for her campaign in March and that she started April with almost $29 million on hand. The campaign said she also raised an additional $6.1 million for the Democratic National Committee and state parties in March.
Some had theorized that super PACs, which, unlike presidential campaigns and other committees, can raise and spend unlimited amounts of cash, could effectively serve as shadow campaigns for candidates this cycle and propel them forward even after donors had maxed out the amount they gave to the regular campaigns.
But according to CFI, the top three super PACs, in terms of money spent on independent expenditures, have been the pro-Bush Right to Rise, the pro-Marco Rubio Conservative Solutions PAC at about $55 million, and the pro-Chris Christie America Leads, at about $18.5 million. All three candidates have suspended their campaigns.
“It almost doesn’t matter if I give you a nuclear weapon and you’ve got the French army behind it,” said Mr. O’Connell.
Mr. O’Connell also pointed out that Mr. Trump, the Republican front-runner, has managed to command unprecedented free media this cycle.
Mr. Trump has touted the comparatively small amounts he’s spent on campaign advertising, and his campaign fundraising totals have trailed those of Sen. Ted Cruz, Mr. Trump’s main GOP rival, and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who was able to consistently bring in huge sums of money when he was in the race.
“I think it’s hard to tell what the future is with super PACs because we had this snowplow known as Donald Trump, who had a hundred percent name ID and a really great message,” Mr. O’Connell said. “Now, what if I gave that guy a super PAC? My God, I can see scorched earth from here to Alaska.”