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

Election '16

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.

But he was hardly alone. On the GOP side, there were numerous million-dollar checks. Robert McNair, owner of the Houston Texans football team, gave $1 million. By Election Day, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison had given $3 million to a pro-Romney super PAC. On the Democratic side, Chicago media mogul Fred Eychaner gave another $1 million to the pro-Obama super PAC, Priorities USA, raising his total gifts to the group to $4 million (and $14 million for the campaign). Hedge fund owner James Simons gave Priorities USA $1.5 million in mid-October.

Adelson, however, emerged as the biggest new Republican player since Karl Rove. In the campaign’s closing weeks, he and his wife gave $33 million to GOP super PACs.

3. But Big Money Doesn’t Buy Everything

One intriguing figure from the latest FEC reports is the sheer number of donations received by the campaigns in the final two weeks. Obama reported 1.3 million donors raising more than $100 million, compared to almost 600,000 donors for Romney that netted $85.9 million. Obama and the super PACs backing him spent $197 million between Oct. 18 and Nov. 26, while Romney and his allies spent $151 million.

Obama's victory has in part been attributed to his so-called ground game—identifying supporters and making sure they voted—not just the expensive broadcast ad wars, which generally take about half of campaign budgets. Many AlterNet readers will likely recall getting bombarded with Obama campaign e-mails urging them to donate $5 or more, saying that they were being out-raised and out-spent by the GOP.

Politico’s coverage of the latest FEC reports quotes Obama campaign manager Jim Messina saying this was a strategic ploy—where the goal wasn’t entirely raising money (because the campaign had plenty) but instead was to engage a legion of volunteers to assist with get-out-the-vote efforts (by manning phone banks, tracking voters, etc.)

Still, the 2012 cycle showed that having a bottomless supply of political money wasn’t enough to win. Most of the candidates backed by billionaire Republicans lost. Similarly, Obama would not have won were it not for his get-out-the-vote push—which was more reliant on people’s time and energy than their checkbooks.

4. What Does The Public Think About All This?

This past July, Gallup did a poll that found that the number two issue on likely voters’ minds—after jobs—was ending political corruption in Washington. Eight-seven percent said this was their second priority. And since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010, nearly 2 million people have signed petitions calling for Congress to propose a Constitutional Amendment to allow political money to be regulated—or rebalanced in a fairer-minded way between competing interests.

There is no one source for tracking all political spending. But if the $6 billion figure for the 2012 cycle is correct, that means with 120 million voters in November that the entire process spent about $50 per voter. Neither Obama nor Romney took presidential public financing funds—the first time neither major party candidate did so.

But if Americans want to consider what it will cost on a voter-by-voter basis to have a system where Sheldon Adelson doesn’t spend two million times as much as the typical final stretch Obama donor, or if they want a poltical system where federal candidates don’t have to raise megabucks at all but instead rise and fall by their ideas and their presentation, then remember that $50 per capita figure.

The FEC reports don’t explicitly state what the cost of nationwide public financing would be. But there it is—less than a tank of gas—whether it’s a congressional approporiation or a tax credit that every voter could assign to their favored candidate or candidates.

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