Campaign 2012 Big Spenders: Obama v. Romney

In the wake of the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, most political commentators predicted a wave of unprecedented political spending during the 2012 election. Super PACs supporting Republican and Democratic candidates have raised millions of dollars, free from any donation limits thanks to the Supreme Court decision. The candidates themselves have raised millions of dollars — Obama himself is near half a billion dollars in total funds raised. Although with just over a month before the election, they are bound to raise and spend millions more.

Since the subject of unprecedented campaign spending was on the agenda here at New America this week, I decided it might be interesting to see just where the candidates have been spending their money — and where they were outspending each other. In addition to fundraising figures, the Federal Election Commission records what each campaign is spending its funds on. From direct mail consulting groups to payroll to event catering — everything! By taking this information and pivoting it on the states, it's possible to see how much each candidate's campaign is spending in each state. And by dividing President Obama's expenditures by Mitt Romney's, a ratio of the candidate's spending emerges.

There were some surprises looking at the spending data in this way. For example, there were some clear outliers. The District of Columbia nets the majority of Obama's expenditures because it is host to GMMB Inc., the political consulting and advocacy organization the president uses for outreach across the country. Wisconsin as well is an outlier for the president because AB Data, a direct marketing company, is based in Milwaukee. For Romney, New Hampshire is a surprising outlier. While also a state Romney sought in the primaries, it is host to an organization the GOP nominee taps for direct mail fundraising appeals. Virginia is also a big-spending state for Romney, but not just because it's a swing state. Targeted Victory, an advertising company focusing on promoting Romney and other Republican interests, is based in Virginia and claims most of Romney's spending in the state.

Despite these outliers, there are some interesting patterns. The president might be leading in the polls, but he will hardly win every state in November. So why is he outspending Romney 5:1 in several low-population red states? See for yourself, you might be surprised where the presidential campaigns are spending their war chests:

 

Where Is Romney Spending 110 Times More Than Obama?

 

... We examined expenditure data from the Federal Election Commission to see where each campaign is outspending the other. Obama and Romney outspend each other most in the states where they headquarter their campaigns, Illinois and Massachusetts respectively. But why is Romney spending 110 times more than Obama in New Hampshire, a state with only four electoral votes? Much of the money going to a state may pay for services that help a candidate’s bid in other states. ...

Does Political Power Have a Price Tag in 2012?

Earlier this year, Trevor Potter, the former Federal Elections Commission chairman and lawyer who represents Stephen Colbert’s Super PAC on the Colbert Report, received a phone call from a German reporter.

“He said, ‘I want to interview you about the role of the oligarchs in the election,’ and I thought, ‘wait a minute, wrong country!’” Potter laughingly recounted in a faux-German accent. Potter was speaking at a New America event on Tuesday that considered the broader impact of this election cycle’s huge campaign donations – mostly resultant of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision – on the political process. “The notion of a democracy is that people - citizens and voters - get to set policy, not special interests or other groups countries would call oligarchs,” said Potter, who is also the president of the Campaign Legal Center. “Underlying this is the tension between the first amendment when it comes to spending unlimited money [in elections] versus the danger of corruption that politicians might be bought. “

In Citizens United, the Supreme Court held that all corporations and unions have the same unfettered First Amendment right enjoyed by the media and politicians to speak out in support or opposition of a candidate in an election, a right that Congress cannot restrict via campaign finance “electioneering” restrictions. 

That decision helped pave the way for the creation of Super PACS, political action committees that, like traditional PACs, can’t donate directly to a candidate or a party, but can spend infinite amounts of cash on an election independently.

So are these unlimited donations transforming politics?

The answer to that question, said Time magazine White House Correspondent and event panelist Michael Scherer, is complicated. Rich people writing big campaign checks isn’t a new phenomenon. But today, Super PACs are making those dollars more visible through torrential television ad broadcasts. And the massive donations funneled through super PACs allowed candidates like Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum to continue moribund primary campaigns because of a handful of wealthy donors.

“There’s a lot of concern among democrats that going into 2016, [especially] after what happened in the GOP primary, there is a huge barrier to overcome,” Scherer said. “ It’s difficult to see how any candidate can get into the race without having a few very wealthy friends. There is real concern that [this reality] will self-select candidates, or lead the country on a path to the situation where people who can give 10 million dollar checks have increasing control over the political process.”  

That shift in control could have a ripple effect across society. “This creates a situation where enormous economic inequality is reinforced by political inequality,” said panelist Mark Schmitt, a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and a New America senior research fellow. “It’s not the one percent that’s giving to campaigns.  It’s about one-fifth of one percent.”  

Another problem, according to the panelists: We often don’t know who comprises that one-fifth of one percent.  Some super PAC money comes from non-profits that don’t have to reveal donor identities. And many super PACs are able to conceal the names of supporters - at least temporarily -  by choosing an infrequent disclosure schedule from options mandated by federal election law.

“For accountability’s sake, I want to know who is trying to push an election one way or another,” Scherer said, arguing for greater transparency. “…We have an enormous problem now in the timing of disclosures.”

Potter hopes that the next congress will address the murky disclosure issue. The Supreme Court, he said, has made it clear that disclosure is a good thing. “Citizens should know who’s paying for these ads and shareholders should know what corporations are up to…it’s hard to argue against disclosure.”

But event moderator Katherine Mangu-Ward, the managing editor of Reason magazine, gave that argument a shot. Isn’t there value in anonymous political speech? she challenged. 

“I don’t understand why you think there’s a value to someone being able to spend millions of dollars anonymously to say someone is great or terrible,” Potter responded, pointing out that there’s inherent value to disclosure in preventing corruption.

Speaking anonymously can protect the reputations of individuals with unpopular views, reasoned Fellow Mangu-Ward, also a New America Schwartz Fellow. “I might be a rich guy who doesn’t want to have the pain at cocktail parties of [a controversial political stance], or someone who generally fears for my personal safety,” she said. “I might be someone who doesn’t want my own reputation to sully the message I’m conveying.” It’s an argument that anyone who has ever written under a pseudonym [including the auhors of the Federalist Papers!] understands, she concluded.

“[Those are] reasons, but I’m not sure they’re good reasons,” Potter gibed.

Later, panelists dismantled a common donor narrative long perpetuated in the press: The individuals who write $10 million checks are pursuing power, and only want to leverage the donation for their own political gain. “The reality is that there are very different motivations from very different types of people,” Scherer said. “[There are] ideological philanthropists who give every year and feel this is how they can do good in the world. They don’t really want anything back. But the problem from a policy and legal standpoint is, how do you distinguish from the outset one guy from the other guy?” Namely, the guy who is donating so he can pull the strings on the president’s policies. That line of thought reminded Potter of the election of Theodore Roosevelt around the turn of the 20th century. Wall Street trusts had donated cash to get Roosevelt in office because they wanted him to keep them safe, and refrain from passing anti-trust legislation. Later, Roosevelt became known as the “Trustbuster” for his crusade against those monopolies.

That stark departure led steel mogul Henry Clay Frick to grumble, “ We bought the son of a bitch and then he didn’t stay bought.“ And it prompted Roosevelt to censure the use of private money in presidential elections. “He said we ought to have public money from the Treasury because private corporations shouldn’t be deciding who the president is,” Potter recounted.

Neither should individuals. Schmitt admitted the relationship between Republican campaign donor and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and Mitt Romney “troubled” him. “You want to create a structure where elected officials are not largely dependent on a given donor.”

Will Congress work to create a structure like that in the next term?

“Right now, this is a totally partisan issue,” Scherer explained. In the near future, he doesn’t expect much will change on the Hill. But campaign finance reform could become a powerful rallying cry for Democrats during the next four years. During a late August interview with users of the popular news content sharing site Reddit, President Obama promised to pursue the dubious idea of a constitutional amendment to  overturn the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United.

But even if he can’t pass an amendment, Obama –or Washington Democrats  - could effectively frame the fight against Citizens United as “helping the working guy defeat the fat cats,” and or the common man versus the power of special interests, suggested Scherer. “There’s real potential for a party to take this as a baton and use it as a way of mobilizing people,” he said.

What's Wrong with U.S. Policy in the Mideast?

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed this week, Mitt Romney argues that America needs  “a new strategy toward the Middle East.”
 
Why does our current approach need a facelift? Because, he writes, President Obama’s weak leadership  -- from “misapplying” our values abroad to “stepping away from our allies” --  has “heightened the prospect of conflict and instability” in the region.
 
Romney’s perfect policy: Get rid of the “daylight” between the United States and Israel, make sure Iranian ayatollahs believe us when we say we won’t tolerate Iranian nuclear capability, and use soft power to “encourage liberty and opportunity” abroad.
 
On the latest episode of The Sidebar, New America’s weekly news podcast, Future Tense Fellow Romesh Ratnesar also explores how U.S. strategy could change in the Middle East post-election. But Ratnesar cites a distinct U.S. policy flop that Romney fails to mention in his op-ed:    
 
“The biggest deficiency in our policy toward the Middle East and our strategy is the failure to make headway on the Israeli Palestinian issue, “ says Ratnesar, the deputy editor of Bloomberg BusinessWeek. “[That issue] ultimately must be solved before you can establish a lasting stability there and before we can even begin to think that the kind of hostility toward the United States and West in general can be extinguished.”
 
Listen to the full podcast here.

The Candidates on Education: Unsatisfactory

Will President Obama and GOP nominee Mitt Romney please report to the principal’s office?
 
This week, Education Policy Program Policy Analyst Anne Hyslop watched the candidates take a deep, wonky dive into the specifics of their education proposals on NBC News’ Education Nation summit, and graded the substance behind the rhetoric in a blog post. While she didn’t hand out letter grades, we’re guessing that neither would receive an A. 

“Romney continues to cling to the naïve idea that soft accountability – like the school report cards with A-F letter grades that Florida uses – will be sufficient to turn around underperforming schools,” Hyslop writes.

In the Governor’s words: “If we had that, then you'd see parents, if they saw their school get a C or a D or worse, those parents are going to be outraged. And they're going to want to gather together, become part of PTA organizations and talk about taking back the school.”

Hyslop’s response: “School report cards? That’s so ten years ago. Where are the hordes of parents taking back their schools (other than at the movies)? ”

President Obama got points off for his response to a question about No Child Left Behind. Today Show co-anchor Savannah Guthrie asked if the decision by some states to establish lower performance goals for minorities under No Child Left Behind troubled him.

“After replying ‘of course it bothers me,’ Obama explained that his approach would be to emphasize growth and encourage continual improvement toward high standards, rather than set an absolute standard off the bat that schools could not come close to meeting,” Hyslop explains. “That’s true, but his answer felt incomplete. He failed to link the growth approach to a strong accountability and improvement system for schools with large achievement gaps. “
Hyslop also saw room for improvement in Romney’s policy initiative for early childhood education. Romney’s big plan? Engage parents – especially two-parents households where one parent can stay at home, supervising the child’s educational progress.

“In this case, Governor Romney isn’t ten years behind federal policy, he’s sixty,” Hyslop charges. “Instead of lamenting the breakdown of the 50’s-era nuclear family, Governor Romney could have elaborated more on specific federal early childhood programs with a parent involvement component but didn’t.”

Read her full post here.

Photo credit: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

Is Ryan's Medicare Voucher System a Good Idea?

We’re guessing that Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s 78-year-old mother sees no problem with her son’s plan to transform Medicare into a voucher-based program. In August, she appeared with him on the campaign trail – seemingly to prove that the Wisconsin congressman has the best interests of seniors in mind. But most of the time, parents can’t be trusted to impartially analyze the handiwork of their children – whether it’s a finger painting or a piece of legislation.
 
In today’s Zocalo Public Square, Yale Professor Emeritus Ted Marmor offers some objective analysis.  A little background on the subject: Ryan and his crew argue that vouchers – which would offer seniors a capped amount of money to purchase private medical insurance – are the only way to rein in the program’s escalating costs. Marmor challenges that claim to answer the question at the center of the Medicare debate:  “Is Medicare really unsustainably expensive—and are vouchers a viable means of addressing its fiscal challenges?”
 
Marmor finds that “the voucher system…would not control medical inflation, simplify administrative complexity, or secure uninterrupted and stable economic protection.”  But that finding, he says, raises another question: Why have vouchers become so central to reform efforts by Paul Ryan and his allies?
 
Wondering how he reached his conclusions – and why Ryan continues to champion the voucher system?  
 
Read the full post here.

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