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How a Few Über-Wealthy Donors Helped Buy Republicans a Presidential Field They Hate

In the era of Citizens United, early money from deep-pocketed donors played a major role in shaping the GOP field.

In Florida, almost 300,000 fewer Republicans turned out for the GOP primary than showed up in 2008, despite the fact that they're supposedly flush with enthusiasm over the prospect of defeating a black Democrat with a funny name whose presidency they deem illegitimate. They broke big for Romney, but according to the exit polls, 40 percent of them wished they had another candidate to support. In Nevada, turnout was down by 25 percent compared to four years ago, and the trend continued in Missouri, Colorado and Minnesota on Tuesday.

That the Republican base is unhappy with the field this year is hardly news. But while conservative bloggers and talk-radio hosts rail against the “establishment,” there has been notably little criticism of the very real “elites” – wealthy donors – shaping this race ahead of an unprecedented flood of campaign dollars courtesy of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision.

It may be that they're so ideologically predisposed to seeing the wealthy as virtuous “job creators” that it simply doesn't bother them that a small handful of very deep-pocketed donors have helped bring them a race that now essentially boils down to a choice between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich.

According to Steven Rosenfeld, AlterNet's politics editor, "In the early phases of a presidential campaign, it makes more sense that individual donors will loom larger than institutional donors, because the candidates are more accessible to would-be donors and their struggle for the nomination is more compelling to the people who know them best."

The early money in this cycle has come from a small pool of very large individual donations, much of it funneled through the candidates' super-PACs – which are ostensibly independent, but are in fact headed by the candidates' former staffers. And in an election cycle that will see an unprecedented torrent of campaign dollars, some candidates who failed to line up their sugar-daddies early decided not to compete.

According to the Federal Elections Commission, pro-Romney PACs raised more than $30 million by the end of last year. Ryan Reilly of Talking-Points Memo did an analysis of PAC dollars, and found that just 58 donors, each contributing upward of $100,000, accounted for 82 percent of pro-Romney PACs' haul in the second half of last year.

Donors kicking in a hundred grand or more have provided the vast majority of all the GOP campaigns' “independent” money in this cycle. As Reilly noted:

Rick Perry’s Make Us Great Again came in at 86.59 percent; Jon Huntsman’s Our Destiny PAC at 87.19 percent; Newt Gingrich’s Winning Our Future at 96.14 percent; and Ron Paul’s Endorse Liberty at 88.23 percent. Rick Santorum’s Red White and Blue Fund came in with the lowest percentage of dollars from donors who gave in the six figures at 79.59 percent.

Romney, despite his perceived apostasy on issues like healthcare reform and believing the scientific consensus about climate change, is where he is today largely because he began this election cycle with a distinct cash advantage, and with the help of his allied super-PAC, has since dumped massive truckloads of dollars into negative ad campaigns when he's needed a win.

Although Gingrich came into Florida riding a double-digit advantage in the polls following his South Carolina victory, Romney's camp outspent Gingrich's by a 4-1 margin – shelling out $15.9 million to Gingrich's $4 million in a costly television market.

From as far back as 2009, Romney has led the GOP pack in fundraising, often by a significant margin. And his position is obviously not a result of his appeal to conservatives. As the Washington Post reported, Romney's campaign has been fueled by a “heavy reliance on a small group of millionaires and billionaires for financial support.” The Post continues:

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