Election 2014  
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4 Ways the Richest Americans Treated Our National Election Like a Plaything

The latest FEC reports show just how manic the spending was—and why grassroots organizing still matters.

Sheldon Adelson


In the final three weeks of the 2012 presidential race, the Obama campaign and its allies spent $10.3 million a day, while the daily burn rate of the Romney campaign and its allies was $7.9 million, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.

In that nail-biting stretch after October 18, Obama had twice as many donors as Romney, a total of 1.3 million people giving an average of $41, which some analysts said was the result of a deliberate strategy to sound panicky in order to push people to not only give money but also to recruit them for Obama’s get-out-the-vote effort.

In the meantime, in early November when most everyone’s attention was on the White House, the National Republican Senatorial Committee sent $760,000 to the Missouri Republican Party to save the U.S. Senate bid of Rep. Todd Akin, whose anti-abortion remarks caused a national uproar and pushed the NRSC to ‘disavow’ him months before. Akin lost, as did pro-gun candidate Rep. Joe Baca, a California Democrat, who faced nearly $3 million in attack ads from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who supports gun control laws.

These edgey takeaways are just some of the conclusions that can be drawn from the latest campaign finance reports filed in the 2012 presidential cycle, where the total tab is likely to reach a record-setting $6 billion. Looking back at 2012’s campaign finance landscape reveals a political system where billionaires set the stage during 2012’s early nominating contests by investing in presidential candidates, and Democrats, fueled by their own big donors and grassroots efforts, caught up and dominated in the fall.

Let’s go through some of the numbers, which show the latest ways that private money shapes and distorts the electoral process.

1. Billion Dollar Candidates

It’s not a surprise that every recent presidential campaign has set new spending records from the top of the ticket through local elections. Part of the reason is there’s more media outlets than ever, driving up advertising costs. Another part of it is that campaigners want to lock up the airtime and monopolize the messaging, which turns swing states and locales with tight races into political mudfests. And another part of it is that the federal courts have deregulated campaign finance rules for decades, creating an ever-evolving series of legal—but corrupting—conduits for the biggest spenders.

The 2012 cycle saw all these trends writ large. Obama raised $1.123 billion, compared to Romney’s $1.019 billion. Together the two campaigns spent about one-third of the total from the campaign season. But the ‘official’ presidential campaigns were hardly alone, because in the wings were 2012’s Super PACs and ‘dark-money’ groups raising and spending hundreds of millions of dollars on behalf of those and other candidates.

2. Billionaire Donors Shaping the Field

It’s seems like ancient history now, but a year ago as Iowa was poised to hold its first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses, a new political figure appeared on the national stage. Newt Gingrich was floundering until a bullionaire Las Vegas casino owner and his wife, Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, wrote a $10 million check to a so-called super PAC, which is supposed to be an independent political committee but obviously was completely committed to Gingrich.

Adelson ended up spending upwards of $100 million for Republican candidates and causes in 2012, according to a Washington Post analysis. Super PACs, which were empowered after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, were only one conduit for million-dollar checks. Another were political organizations that had been chartered as non-profit social welfare groups—which allows them to shield their donors. Adelson gave more than $54 million to GOP presidential candidates and $18 million to other GOP campaigns, including a last-minute attack on Michigan Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow that failed to prevent her re-election.

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