This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
At a time when it's become a cliché to say that Occupy Wall Street has changed the nation's political conversation—drawing long overdue attention to the struggles of the 99 percent—electoral politics and the 2012 presidential election have become almost exclusively defined by the 1 percent. Or, to be more precise, the .000063 percent. Those are the 196 individual donors who have provided nearly 80 percent of the money raised by super-PACs in 2011 by giving $100,000 or more each.
These political action committees, spawned by the Supreme Court's 5-4 Citizens United decision in January 2010, can raise unlimited amounts of money from individuals, corporations, or unions for the purpose of supporting or opposing a political candidate. In theory, super-PACs are legally prohibited from coordinating directly with a candidate, though in practice they're just a murkier extension of political campaigns, performing all the functions of a traditional campaign without any of the corresponding accountability.
If 2008 was the year of the small donor, when many political pundits (myself included) predicted that the fusion of grassroots organizing and cyberactivism would transform how campaigns were run, then 2012 is "the year of the big donor," when a candidate is only as good as the amount of money in his super-PAC. "In this campaign, every candidate needs his own billionaires," wrote Jane Mayer of The New Yorker.
"This really is the selling of America," claims former presidential candidate and Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean. "We've been sold out by five justices thanks to the Citizens United decision." In truth, our democracy was sold to the highest bidder long ago, but in the 2012 election the explosion of super-PACs has shifted the public's focus to the staggering inequality in our political system, just as the Occupy movement shined a light on the gross inequity of the economy. The two, of course, go hand in hand.
"We're going to beat money power with people power," Newt Gingrich said after losing to Mitt Romney in Florida as January ended. The walking embodiment of the lobbying-industrial complex, Gingrich made that statement even though his candidacy is being propped up by a super-PAC funded by two $5 million donations from Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. It might have been more amusing if the GOP presidential primary weren't a case study of a contest long on money and short on participation.
The Wesleyan Media Project recently reported a 1,600 percent increase in interest-group-sponsored TV ads in this cycle as compared to the 2008 primaries. Florida has proven the battle royal of the super-PACs thus far. There, the pro-Romney super-PAC, Restore Our Future, outspent the pro-Gingrich super-PAC, Winning Our Future, 5 to 1. In the last week of the campaign alone, Romney and his allies ran 13,000 TV ads in Florida, compared to only 200 for Gingrich. Ninety-two percent of the ads were negative in nature, with two-thirds attacking Gingrich, who, ironically enough, had been a fervent advocate of the Citizens United decision.
With the exception of Ron Paul's underdog candidacy and Rick Santorum's upset victory in Iowa—where he spent almost no money but visited all of the state's 99 counties—the Republican candidates and their allied super-PACs have all but abandoned retail campaigning and grassroots politicking. They have chosen instead to spend their war chests on TV.
The results can already be seen in the first primaries and caucuses: an onslaught of money and a demobilized electorate. It's undoubtedly no coincidence that, when compared with 2008, turnout was down 25 percent in Florida, and that, this time around, fewer Republicans have shown up in every state that's voted so far, except for South Carolina. According to political scientists Stephen Ansolabehere and Shanto Iyengar, negative TV ads contribute to "a political implosion of apathy and withdrawal." New York Times columnist Tim Egan has labeled the post-Citizens United era "your democracy on meth."
The .01 Percent Primary
More than 300 super-PACs are now registered with the Federal Election Commission. The one financed by the greatest number of small donors belongs to Stephen Colbert, who's turned his TV show into a brilliant commentary on the deformed super-PAC landscape. Colbert's satirical super-PAC, Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, has raised $1 million from 31,595 people, including 1,600 people who gave $1 each. Consider this a rare show of people power in 2012.
Otherwise the super-PACs on both sides of the aisle are financed by the 1 percent of the 1 percent. Romney's Restore Our Future Super PAC, founded by the general counsel of his 2008 campaign, has led the herd, raising $30 million, 98 percent from donors who gave $25,000 or more. Ten million dollars came from just 10 donors who gave $1 million each. These included three hedge fund managers and Houston Republican Bob Perry, the main funder behind the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in 2004, whose scurrilous ads did such an effective job of destroying John Kerry's electoral prospects. Sixty-five percent of the funds that poured into Romney's super-PAC in the second half of 2011 came from the finance, insurance, and real estate sector, otherwise known as the people who brought you the economic meltdown of 2007-08.
Romney's campaign has raised twice as much as his super-PAC, which is more than you can say for Rick Santorum, whose super-PAC—Red, White & Blue—has raised and spent more than the candidate himself. Forty percent of the $2 million that has so far gone into Red, White & Blue came from just one man, Foster Friess, a conservative hedge fund billionaire and Christian evangelical from Wyoming.
In the wake of Santorum's upset victories in Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri on February 7, Friess told the New York Times that he'd recruited $1 million for Santorum's super-PAC from another (unnamed) donor and upped his own giving, though he wouldn't say by how much. We won't find out until the next campaign disclosure filing in three months, by which time the GOP primary will almost certainly be decided.
For now, Gingrich's sugar daddy Adelson has pledged to stay with his flagging campaign, but he's also signaled that if the former speaker of the House goes down, he'll be ready to donate even more super-PAC money to a Romney presidential bid. And keep in mind that there's nothing in the post-Citizens United law to stop a donor like Adelson, hell-bent on preventing the Obama administration from standing in the way of an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, from giving $100 million, or for that matter, however much he likes.