The Billion-Dollar Spree

Wendy Grossman analyses the 2012 US presidential candidates spending. She explains the rules and regulations behind the campaigns funding sources and concludes that in US elections, money is a key factor.

Image: CC BY-SA Gaelx

"This will be the grossest money election we've seen since Nixon,"Lawrence Lessig predicted earlier this year. And the numbers are indeed staggering.

Never mind the 1%. In October, Lessig estimated that 42 per cent of the money spent so far in the 2012 election cycle had come from just 47 Americans - the .000015 per cent. At this rate, politicians - congressional as well as presidential – are perpetual candidates; fundraising leaves no time to do anything else. By comparison, the total UK expenditure by all candidates in the last general election (PDF) was £31 million - call it $50 million. A mere snip.

Some examples. CNN totals up $506,417,910 spent on advertising in just the eight "battleground" states - since April 10, 2012. Funds raised - again since April 10, 2012 - $1,021,265,691, much of it from states not in the battleground category - like New York, Texas, and California. In October, the National Record predicted that Obama's would be the first billion-dollar campaign.

The immediate source of these particular discontents is the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that held that restricting political expenditure on "electioneering communications" by organizations contravened the First Amendment's provisions on freedom of expression. This is a perfectly valid argument if you accept the idea that organizations - corporations, trade unions, and so on - are people who should not be checked from spending their money to buy themselves airtime in which to speak freely.

An earlier rule retained in Citizens United was that donors to so-called Super PACs (that is, political action committees that can spend unlimited amounts on political advertising as long as their efforts are independent of those of the campaigns) must be identified. That's not much of a consolation: just like money laundering in other contexts, if you want to buy yourself a piece of a president and don't want to be identified, you donate to a non-profit advocacy group and they'll spend or donate it for you and you can remain anonymous, at least to the wider public outside the Super PAC..

And they worry about anonymous trolling on the internet.

CNN cites Public Citizen as the source of the news that 60 per cent of PACS spend their funds on promoting a single candidate, and that often these are set up and run by families, close associates, or friends of the politicians they support. US News has a handy list of the top 12 donors willing to be identified. Their interests vary; it's not like they're all ganging up on the rest of us with a clear congruence of policy desires; similarly, Super PACs cover causes I like as well as causes I don't. And even if they didn't, it's not the kind of straightforward corruption where there is an obvious chain where you can say, money here, policy there.

If securing yourself access to put your views is your game, donating huge sums of money to a single candidate or party traditionally you want to donate to both sides, so that no matter who gets into office they'll listen to you. It's equally not a straightforward equation of more money here, victory there, although it's true: Obama outcompeted Romney on the money front, perhaps because so many Democrats were so afraid he wouldn't be able to keep up. But, as Lessig has commented, even if the direct corrupt link is not there, the situation breeds distrust, doubt, and alienation in voters' minds.

The Washington Post argues that the big explosion of money this time is at least partly due to the one cause most rich people can agree on: tax policy. Some big decisions - the fiscal cliff - lie ahead in the next few months, as tax cuts implemented during the Bush (II) administration automatically expire. When those cuts were passed, the Republicans must have expected the prospect would push the electorate to vote them back in. Oops.

Some more details. Rootstrikers, the activist group Lessig founded to return the balance of power in American politics to the people, has a series of graphics intended to illustrate the sources of money behind super PACs; the president; and their backers. The Sunlight Foundation has an assessment of donors' return on investment

An even better one comes from the Federal Election Commission via Radio Boston, showing the distribution of contributions. The pattern is perfectly clear: the serious money is coming from the richer, more populated, more urbanized states. The way this can distort policy is also perfectly clear.

One of the big concerns in this election was that measures enacted in the name of combating voter fraud (almost non-existent) would block would-be voters from being able to cast ballots. Instead, it seems that Obama was more successful in getting out the vote.

The conundrum I'd like answered is this. Money is clearly a key factor in US elections - it can't get you elected, but the lack of it can certainly keep you out of office. It's clearly much less so elsewhere. So, if the mechanism by which distorted special-interest policies get adopted in the US is money, then what's the mechanism in other countries? I'd really like to know.


Wendy M. Grossman’s web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series.

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By Wendy Grossman on Nov 13, 2012

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