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Revealed: Why the Pundits Are Wrong About Big Money and the 2012 Elections

One campaign funded largely by the super-rich lost to another funded by same, and money mattered big-time in House elections.

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What about the presidential race?

In sharp contrast to Mitt Romney, the President did not mock poor people. His campaign was not a cartoon of 1950s white America, nor was it flanked by aggressively garrulous billionaires. Early in the campaign, its fundraising even appeared to lag for a while among the 1 percent, though our impression is that those stories reflected confusion over how the White House was raising the money. The campaign also touted the number of small donations it was collecting, striving in 2012 to create the same impression that it had in 2008, that donors of modest means propelled it forward. 

In the final weeks of the campaign, it looked as though the Romney campaign would hugely outspend it. Based on data for Super Pacs through roughly October 27, we raised the question whether the Romney campaign’s advantage in the final weeks might approach that of 2000, when George W. Bush’s campaign emulsified Al Gore in the battleground states.

A few days ago, however, the Federal Election Commission posted reports by both the Romney and Obama campaigns covering the final days of the campaign. Read in the light of reports by the Super Pacs, these lead to some surprising conclusions. Firstly, total spending by both campaigns, including the Super Pacs, was much closer than generally supposed, though the wide range of secondary committees that the campaigns utilized makes a single estimate treacherous and double counting an occupational hazard . One summary that (very reasonably) takes a wider view of total receipts than we do below suggests the Romney camp spent perhaps $1.51 billion, while Obama’s campaign just a shade less -- $1.45 billion.  Secondly, in the last week of the campaign, contrary to what we feared at the time, 2012 was very far from repeating 2000 – though the Republicans spent more, spending by the Obama campaign also surged.

These numbers inevitably raise the question whether the Obama campaign’s 2012 claims to be fueled by small donations might be as hollow as its 2008 claims turned out to be.

Though the FEC has posted summary reports for the campaigns, it has inexplicably not updated the roster of individual donors to the President’s campaign, even though campaigns file these reports electronically. But we can use the data that are on file, covering the period through mid-October, to make an estimate that past experience suggests will change only slightly.

Our figures reflect only the narrow list of campaign committees that concentrated on the President’s campaign. They include his principal campaign committee, the main Super Pac, a few much smaller Super Pacs that only gave to Obama, and the Democratic National Committee and some other committees that engaged in joint fundraising with the President’s campaign). We employ the same intensive name matching techniques that we used for our analysis of 2008 and have taken pains to eliminate double counting among committee transfers, so our totals, which are for individual contributions, will run lower than some published estimates.

Our results are extremely interesting. As Table 1 shows, across the entire roster of contributions reported to the FEC (i.e., those summing to $200 or more), contributions adding up to less than $250 supplied barely 1 percent of the campaign’s funds. Contributions below the threshold of $200 dollars don’t have to be itemized. Obama’s principle committee reported raising $234 million in unitemized contributions, while the Victory committees reported raising $94 million; it is likely that the real total is less than the sum of these because of double counting of committee transfers. By contrast, eighty-six percent of all the itemized money came from donations summing to $1000 or over, with over half of it coming from individuals donating $10,000 or more. (Because the unitemized totals come from later spending reports, it is senseless to compare them directly with the total for itemized contributions shown in our table – that number will rise sharply when the FEC finally posts the full roster.)