How Many Billionaires Does it Take to Buy a Nomination?

(Photo credit: Mike Licht,

President Obama tried on Tuesday to justify his announcement last week that he will send senior level administration and campaign officials to fundraising events for the pro-Obama Super PAC, Priorities USA –a major flipflop for the President who had been  a vocal critic of both super PACs and the Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission Supreme Court decision which spawned them.

Looking past the President’s obvious willingness to trade in principle for pragmatic gain, he certainly had a point when he said:

“We’re seeing some of the effects of it right now in the Republican primary…I mean, you’ve got billionaires who are just writing checks for tens of millions of dollars and suddenly the entire dynamic of the election has changed…”

It most certainly has.

Unlike candidates, who can raise a maximum of $2,500 per person for each election, super PACs are independent from candidates.

But as Paul S. Ryan, FEC Program Director at the Campaign Legal Center has pointed out:

“Recent announcements…that high-level campaign staff will be appearing at super PAC fundraising events make clear that these super PACs are simply shadow candidate committees set up to evade the $2,500 candidate contribution limit…Million-dollar contributions to the super PACs pose just as big a threat of corruption as would million-dollar contributions directly to candidates.”

The influence that super PACs have had in the 2012 campaign thus far cannot be underemphasized.

Look no further than the GOP primaries – during which super PACs have been responsible for a new flood of secret and unlimited cash infiltrating our political system.

And because they can raise unlimited amounts from individuals, corporations and labor unions, and spend unlimited amounts to support or oppose a candidate, super Pacs  have become more powerful than the campaigns they support.

Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Ron Paul have been kept afloat by at least one Super PAC set up by their political allies with the explicit purpose of raising and spending millions of dollars in unrestricted campaign donations.

As of February 21, 2012, 332 groups organized as Super PACs have reported total receipts of $122,765,328 and total independent expenditures of $51,220,626 in the 2012 cycle.

As Politico reported:

The super PAC supporting Rick Santorum’s presidential campaign pulled in $2.1 million in January – half of which came from a relatively low-profile Louisiana energy executive, according to a report filed Monday evening with the Federal Election Commission.

The Red, White and Blue Fund super PAC spent $1.4 million boosting Santorum’s cash-strapped campaign last month, and was credited with helping him win the Iowa caucuses.

Meanwhile,  an exclusive circle of mega-donors have become more influential than the candidates themselves.

Indeed, as the Washington Post reported:

“In January, just five donors gave a total of $19 million, a quarter of the money raised for the presidential race that month,…Overall, 23 people have directed about $54 million to super PACs this cycle, bankrolling a tide of negative ads in primary-contest states.”

Indeed, “four years ago, just 6 percent of campaign advertising in the GOP primaries amounted to attacks on other Republicans; in this election, that figure has shot up to more than 50 percent, according to an analysis of advertising trends”  – with the Romney campaign and super PAC spending nearly $15 million on negative advertising alone.

Not too long ago, political campaigns raised funds through ordinary individual contributions.

But today, thanks to unprecedented levels of special-interest political money, and a flood of secret and unlimited cash, ordinary voters are being left on the sidelines.

Meanwhile,  mega-donors like Sheldon Adelson, Foster Freiss, Peter Theil and Harold Simmons are using cash infusions and major ad buys to manipulate the duration and outcome of the GOP nomination battle .

The imbalance in the campaign-finance system has further isolated voters from politicians and contributed enormously to the deep disenchantment with Congress and Washington more generally.

As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, “We can have a democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”