Politics

09.05.12

Will Republicans’ Vast Super-PAC-Money Advantage Swing the Election?

Conservatives are lapping liberals in the post-Citizens United fundraising game, writes John Avlon. Plus, Rahm hooks up with Obama’s Super PAC

As Democrats gather in Charlotte, N.C., the optimism is palpable. But the party has been dangerously overconfident throughout this election, and some are still in denial about the big money behemoth they are facing this fall.

Mitt Romney just announced his third $100 million month. He has approached this presidential campaign like a private-equity bid: the man with the most money wins.

But campaigns are only part of the money in play post–Citizens United. The 2012 elections are expected to cost an unprecedented $5.8 billion dollars—$2.5 billion on the presidential race alone—according to the invaluable Center for Responsive Politics. And when it comes to the super PACs—the new, new thing in campaign finance—Democrats are being left in the dust.

Take in this reality check: the Mitt Romney-associated super PAC Restore Our Future has outraised the Obama-associated Priorities USA Action by a 5–1 margin, despite Priorities’ raising a personal best $10 million last month.

This is indicative of the unequal playing field in Election 2012. Conservative super PACS and outside groups have raised $248 million—nearly four times the $65 million raised by their liberal counterparts.

And that’s just the money we know about—not the dark money flooding the system through the abuse of 501(c)(4) “social welfare” organizations attached to super PACs that don’t have to disclose donors ever or expenditures until more than a year after the election.

Conservatives have done far more to take advantage of super PACs than liberals. In fact, there are more than twice as many Republican-leaning super PACs this cycle as Democratic-leaning ones.

It makes sense then that eight of the top 10 Super PAC donors are conservative. Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson has famously given $36 million to Republicans so far this cycle, more than 10 times as much as the $3.25 million put in by the leading Democratic donor, Chicago’s Fred Eychaner.

Where are the liberal billionaires? Well, the usually ubiquitous George Soros is essentially sitting out this cycle, spending just over $1 million, compared with $23 million in 2004 as the enthusiasm to defeat a Republican incumbent then exceeded the determination to defend the Democratic Party’s status quo now (an effort not aided by a reported White House snub).

The imbalance is compounded by good-government impulses on the Democratic side that led them to refuse corporate donations to help pay for their convention, and to sneer at PAC or lobbyist money to aid the Obama-campaign coffers.

Obama’s decision to dump matching funds in 2008 so he could outraise and outspend John McCain did not seem nearly so sentimental.

Conservatives argue with justification that labor unions have long been able to exercise a super PAC–like degree of seamless support for Democratic campaigns. Citizens United just levels the playing field for corporations, they say. 

But what’s inarguable is the fact that unions are not playing in the super-PAC world to nearly the same extent as Republican-supporting special interests.

The AFL-CIO effectively shuttered its super PAC in April of this year after collecting $5 million because of difficulty in getting donor organizations to agree on a common mission. Instead, they are pursuing their own agenda and funneling some money into Priorities USA Action, while the liberal nondisclosing (c)(4) known as Patriot Majority has been especially active since the spring, moving more than $2.5 into the election. By comparison, the Karl Rove–backed super PAC American Crossroads has raised an estimated $240 million.  

The billion-dollar question is what impact all this super-PAC money will have on the election. It may be, as Republican strategist Rick Wilson told me, that “in the past, there was limited money and unlimited airtime.  Now there is unlimited money and limited airtime.” 

What impact can a multimillion dollar television ad buy—or mailing—targeted at a single swing district in a swing state actually have on Election Day? We don’t know yet. But we do know which side will have the money to answer that question down the stretch.

Democrats should not be in denial about the very real money imbalance they are facing this fall. It could make all the difference in a close election.