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Money In The 2012 Election: The Role Of Super PACs

Marcin Bauer |
November 5, 2012 | 12:48 a.m. PST


Money has played a significant role in this year's presidential election. (401(K) 2012, Creative Commons)
Money has played a significant role in this year's presidential election. (401(K) 2012, Creative Commons)
On October 25, both President Obama and Mitt Romney broke the record for the amount of money raised for a presidential election; each candidate had reached a net amount of $1 billion since the beginning of 2011.

This year’s election is expected to cost an unprecedented $6 billion, which includes the presidential, congressional and state elections. The race to the White House is expected to cost $2.5 billion alone. Money obviously plays an important role in our democracy - perhaps a little too much.

The enormous amount of funds required to run for president creates a couple of unique issues. First, candidates must make the choice of appealing to the interests of wealthy donors or the common electorate. This past May, Mitt Romney hosted a private, $50,000-per-plate dinner that was attended by some of his wealthiest donors. During that same, now infamous dinner, Governor Romney stated that 47 percent of the country is "dependent upon government" and that “my job is not to worry about those people.”

Whether or not Governor Romney truly believes what he said is debatable. However, his statement does prove that candidates present conflicting messages, beliefs and policies when addressing specific crowds; especially when the crowd is made up of extremely wealthy and influential donors. Governor Romney would have never publically remarked that 47 percent of the nation does not concern him. But which version of the story should voters believe? Finding an answer to that question is especially difficult since in his goal to appeal to a wide spectrum of donors and voters, Governor Romney has become one of the most inconsistent presidential candidates to date.

Meanwhile, President Obama’s beliefs and policies have had the effect of turning immensely wealthy and powerful individuals against him. The Wall Street Journal states that of the $565.4 million spent by Super PACs, $149.4 million was spent to defeat President Obama while $77 million was spent to defeat Governor Romney. According to Mother Jones, the Super PAC “Americans for Prosperity,” which is secretly supported by the billionaire Koch Brothers, has spent $36.7 million to defeat President Obama. The Koch brothers themselves have, together, allegedly pledged $60 million. Similarly, Las Vegas casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson has donated a total of $50 million against Obama, the single largest publically disclosed political contribution ever recorded.

Whereas President Obama has had a difficult time attracting big money support from billionaires, he has attracted small donations from large numbers of people. His more affluent supporters include Hollywood producer Jeffery Katzenberg ($2 million), billionaire George Soros (around $1.2 million), Bill Maher ($1 million), Anna Wintour of “The Devil Wears Prada fame” ($500 thousand), Steven Spielberg ($100 thousand). Fifty-five percent of President Obama’s funds come from 4.2 million donors who each gave less than $200 each; only 13 percent donated the maximum direct donation of $2,500. Compare this to Governor Romney’s respective 22 percent small and 45 percent large donations. President Obama has ultimately spent more time fundraising than any other president - as of June 2012, 164 days (President Bush only spent 86 days doing the same). That does not include the president’s fundraising stops in the final leg of the campaign!

Fundraising has always been a crucial part of campaigning and of being president. However, the more money a campaign requires, the more distracted a candidate will be. If our candidates have to worry about pleasing the often conflicting interests of wealthy and smaller donors, as well as the general public, how can they focus on policies that will benefit the nation instead of a particular few? They can’t! A candidate must say one thing to a wealthy donor and another to the public in order to gather support and, more importantly, donations.

Exacerbating the problem, in the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Electoral Commission case, the Supreme Court created a foundation for Political Action Committees (Super PACs). In the ruling, the Supreme Court “swept aside decades of legislative restrictions on the role of corporations in political campaigns, ruling that companies can dip into their treasuries to spend as much as they want to support or oppose individual candidates.” Furthermore, the court concluded “that corporations have the same rights as individuals when it comes to political speech.” The Supreme Court essentially ruled that corporations are people, and allowed them to establish super PACs, organizations that are free to raise and spend money from whomever and however they want until Election Day. However, they must still disclose their donors.

There is nothing wrong with organizations that strive to support a cause with the help of individuals through fundraising. The problem is that the Supreme Court has allowed huge corporations to pour unlimited amounts of cash into Super PACs that often serve their own interests. As an example, Sheldon Adelson’s companies, Las Vegas Sands and Adelson Drug Clinic, donated $20 million and $17 million respectively to Super PACs and therefore to candidates. Other examples include investment banking firm Goldman Sacks ($6.6 million) and Bain Capital ($4.8 million).

Super PACs don’t only contribute to presidential campaigns; they support candidates for congress and state initiatives such as California’s Prop. 32. Prop. 32 aims to limit government employees and contractors from setting up their own Super PACs, while refusing to restrict the power of the very same Super PACs that have given over $11 million to support Prop 32!

With so much money being donated and controlled by a small group of the nation’s wealthiest individuals through their gigantic corporations, the voices of ordinary Americans have become increasingly less influential. While there is certainly nothing wrong with allowing the wealthy to spend their hard-earned money as they see fit, they should not be able to contribute unlimited amounts through their companies.

Who are candidates more likely to listen to - wealthy donors and their extremely generous corporations, or everyday Americans who can’t afford to contribute such significant amounts of money? The ability of corporations to contribute unlimited funds to candidates and campaigns through Super PACs needs to be regulated, although not completely eradicated. Unfortunately, campaigns will only become more expensive with every election, and, as a result, the role of money, and those who can contribute vast sums of money, will become more salient and influential in our nation.


Reach Contributor Marcin Bauer here.



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