The .01 Percent Primary—How 196 people will buy the 2012 election, and where that money will go

There’s an excellent, longish article at Alternet by Ari Berman, highly readable, well researched, about the major money going into the 2012 election. The revelation isn’t that it’s being bought — it’s the extent to which it’s being bought. Berman delivers the names and numbers.

He starts with the bottom line (my emphasis and some reparagraphing throughout):

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% — electoral politics and the 2012 presidential election have become almost exclusively defined by the 1%. Or, to be more precise, the .0000063%. Those are the 196 individual donors who have provided nearly 80% of the money raised by super PACs in 2011 by giving $100,000 or more each.

And where is that money going? TV ads, which are not at all cheap, plus other media and direct mail buys. This is not something you should gloss over lightly; it’s a critical part of the problem, as I’ll explain in a minute:

The Wesleyan Media Project recently reported a 1600% 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, five to one. 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[.]

Berman calls this the “.01 Percent Primary” — agreeing with all those who believe that while “The 1%” makes a great slogan, it’s really the 1% of the 1% who call all the shots.

The .01 Percent Primary

More than 300 super PACs are now registered with the Federal Election Commission. … [With the exception of the Stephen Colbert super PAC] the super PACs on both sides of the aisle are financed by the 1% of the 1%.

Romney’s Restore Our Future Super PAC, founded by the general counsel of his 2008 campaign, has led the herd, raising $30 million, 98% 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. …

[Rick Santorum's] 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. …

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.

Stunningly large amounts of money; but I shop at Safemart. I don’t have Adelson’s $21,000,000,000, or Foster Friess’ $530,000,000, or the money of any of these Romney billionaire donors, as listed by Forbes:

        Ken Griffin [$2.3 billion]
        Paul Tudor Jones [$3.2 billion]
        William Koch [$4 billion]
        Julian Robertson [$2.4 billion]
        Stephen Ross [$3.1 billion]
        Steven Roth [$1.05 billion]
        Marc Rowan [$1.45 billion]
        Alice Walton [$20.9 billion]
        Jim Walton [$21.1 billion]
        Sam Zell [$4.7 billion]

If I did have those dollars, I drop a few dimes (in $10 million increments) on the presidential race as well. There’s more than $60 billion dollars of net worth in just that Romney list, and that’s not his whole list; there’s more.

(By the way, the two Waltons on the list are the really-bigs; that $40 billion between them is inherited Walmart money. And yes, that’s yet another Koch brother, the poor one. The Waltons and the Kochs are two of the 18 families behind the repeal of the Inheritance Tax. You read it right — just 18 families.)

Shadow super PAC—the 501c4 groups

The article then mentions the Daddy of all Super PACs, the “501c4″ organizations, and sa
ys, “any donor can give an unlimited contribution to a 501c4 — outfits defined by the IRS as ‘civic leagues or organizations not organized for profit but operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare,’ and to make matters worse, that contribution will remain eternally secret.” He calls these “shadow super PACs” and he’s right.

Obama isn’t spared. In a section called “The Myth of Small Donors” Berman notes: “Obama’s top contributors included employees of Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, and Citigroup” despite the little-guy giving the campaign chose to emphasize.

Obama’s 2012 super PAC is called Priorities USA. He needs $1 billion to run his campaign. Do the math; then do the after-election math.

There’s more to this piece than I can quote or even reference. Berman’s writing is clear and specific. You won’t be sorry you read it (you may be sorry you live here, but not because the article is badly done; it’s not.)

About those TV stations

Remember how I said above that the media — the networks and TV stations — were a huge part of the problem? Most people only look at the front end of the election system. They see how Big Money buys candidates who pay them back with favorable laws, low taxes, and lack of prosecutions.

But think of the candidate as just a pass-through for the cash. The money starts somewhere (Our Betters); they give it to campaigns and campaign surrogates; tons of people take a very generous cut; and it ends up somewhere. The candidate isn’t bought with the money; the candidate is bought with electoral office.

What does most of that money actually buy? TV time. Very expensive TV time.

Think for a minute from the standpoint of the network or TV station owner:

■ I have a broadcast license that, in practice, I can never lose. (I pray daily to the Great God Clinton, blessings on his name, for that one.)

■ I have a political system that allows me to charge big bucks for what used to be free — access to TV for candidates.

■ I have a campaign financing system that dumps unlimited money into the pockets of politicians and their supporters — and that money needs to be spent.

■ Who do they spend it on? Me.

As a general rule, 75% of campaign money goes to media and communications, and while I don’t have the TV numbers (national and local), I’d bet that TV accounts for the bulk of it.

In 2008, TV commercials accounted for $2.8 billion, alone, in expenditures; 2012 is on target to go off that reservation and onto another planet.

If I’m a network owner — and I look at that setup — I’m looking at “my Precious.” I love my Precious more than life, and I will murder with my hands the first person who tries to change a hair on its little head.

Virtually murder, of course, by single-mindedly and repeatedly destroying his reputation. Something I can easily do, because my product is — media.

Even if every politician in the world wanted that system to change, the media owners would block them every time. That system is worth gold. It’s … Precious. For that reason alone, I fear it will never change.

GP


Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States. Click here for more. Follow him on Twitter @Gaius_Publius and Facebook.

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