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The .0000063% Election
Posted on Feb 18, 2012
By Ari Berman, TomDispatch
In the 2010 election, the 1% of the 1% accounted for 25% of all campaign-related donations, totaling $774 million dollars, and 80% of all donations to the Democratic and Republican parties, the highest percentage since 1990. In congressional races in 2010, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, the candidate who spent the most money won 85% of House races and 83% of Senate races.
The media loves an underdog story, but nowadays the underdog is ever less likely to win. Given the cost of running campaigns and the overwhelming premium on outspending your opponent, it’s no surprise that nearly half the members of Congress are millionaires, and the median net worth of a U.S. Senator is $2.56 million.
The influence of super PACs was already evident by November 2010, just nine months after the Supreme Court’s ruling. John Nichols and Robert McChesney of The Nation note that, of the 53 competitive House districts where Rove’s Crossroads organization outspent Democratic candidates in 2010, Republicans won fifty-one. As it turned out, however, the last election was a mere test run for the monetary extravaganza that is 2012.
Republicans are banking on that super PAC advantage again this year, when the costs of the presidential contest and all other races for federal posts will soar from $5 billion in 2008 to as high as $7 billion by November. (The 2000 election cost a “mere” $3 billion.) In other words, the amount spent this election season will be roughly the equivalent of the gross domestic product of Haiti.
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The Myth of Small Donors
In June 2003, presidential candidate Howard Dean shocked the political establishment by raising $828,000 in one day over the Internet, with an average donation of $112. Dean, in fact, got 38% of his campaign’s total funds from donations of $200 or less, planting the seeds for what many forecast would be a small-donor revolution in American politics.
Four years later, Barack Obama raised a third of his record-breaking $745 million campaign haul from small donors, while Ron Paul raised 39% from small dollars on the Republican side. Much of Paul’s campaign was financed by online “money bombs,” when enthusiastic supporters generated millions of dollars in brief, coordinated bursts. The amount of money raised in small donations by Obama, in particular, raised hopes that his campaign had found a way to break the death grip of big donors on American politics.
In retrospect, the small-donor utopianism surrounding Obama seems naïve. Despite all the adulatory media attention about his small donors, the candidate still raised the bulk of his money from big givers. (Typically, these days, incumbent members of Congress raise less than 10% of their campaign funds from small donors, with those numbers actually dropping when you reach the gubernatorial and state legislative levels.) Obama’s top contributors included employees of Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, and Citigroup, hardly standard bearers for the little guy. For obvious reasons, the campaign chose to emphasize the small donors over the big ones in its narrative, as it continues to do in 2012.
Interestingly enough, both Obama and Paul actually raised more money from small donors in 2011 than they did in 2008, 48% and 52% of their totals, respectively. But in the super PAC era that money no longer has the same impact. Even Dean doubts that his anti-establishment, Internet-fueled campaign from 2004 would be as successful today. “Super PACs have made a grassroots campaign less effective,” he says. “You can still run a grassroots campaign but the problem is you can be overwhelmed now on television and by dirty mailers being sent out… It’s a very big change from 2008.”
Obama is a candidate with a split personality, which makes his campaign equally schizophrenic. The Obama campaign claims it’s raising 98% of its money from small donors and is “building the biggest grassroots campaign in American history,” according to campaign manager Jim Messina. But the starry-eyed statistics and the rhetoric that accompanies it are deeply misleading. Of the $89 million raised in 2011 by the Obama Joint Victory Fund, a collaboration of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Obama campaign, 74% came from donations of $20,000 or more and 99% from donations of $1,000 or more.
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