The US election: It’s all about money

Alan Fisher is an award-winning correspondent who has reported from across the world.

Alan Fisher

In the swing states across America, what they call the “air war” has already begun. Republicans and Democrats are buying up time on television – pushing their message, pushing their candidate.

In around 38 states, you can now almost predict the winner. Texas, Alabama, Mississippi tend to go Republican; New York and California are traditionally Democrat.

That means the presidential election will come down to eleven or twelve crucial places like Ohio, Virginia, Florida and Nevada. And this is where the money and the effort is being concentrated.

Recent figures show that for every dollar Obama’s supporters have spent, Mitt Romney’s have laid down eight.

Back in 2010, the US Supreme Court issued a controversial ruling, which became known as ‘Citizens United’.

Essentially it made it easier for corporations, unions and individuals to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money in support of their chosen candidate. Official campaigns still had limits on how much they could accept from any individual, so this led to the growth in so-called Super Political Action Committees (PACS).

As long as these super PACS did not have direct contact with the campaign, and did not co-ordinate at all, they were free to raise and spend as much money as they wanted. That gave the green light to some huge donations. And in the current race, most of these donations are going to groups supporting Mitt Romney.

Take casino owner Sheldon Adelson, who according to some reports is the eighth richest man in the world.

During the early primary campaigns, he backed Newt Gingrich, donating around $25m to his super PAC. Interestingly, many observers believe that Gingrich’s position on a few key issues – notably on US-Israel relations – shifted to mirror that of Adelson. Now he’s backing Romney. And his first contribution was $10m to a pro-Romney super PAC.

Mark Rom is a political science professor at Georgetown University in Washington DC. He knows that Adelson is not the only rich person getting involved in this race: “If you look at a billionaire drop $10m, drop $20m, that’s chicken feed, that’s pennies under the couch.

“Adelson would surely like to get a return on his investment. He can’t buy the presidency, but he can help influence at the margins the outcome of the race.”

Obama is, until now, the most heavily financed candidate in American political history. And he’s not without his big backers this time around.

US comedian Bill Maher has given $1m; George Clooney hosted a dinner at his house in California which raised around $15m.

It was thought that the Obama campaign, trade unions and Democratic-linked super PACS would raise $1bn. That seems unlikely, but what is more than possible is that Republicans will top whatever they do raise. That may be a sign that the Democrats aren’t as enthused by Obama this time around, or that there are more Republicans who want him out.

Rom believes it may be a combination of the two. “There’s no question, the wealthier you are, the more likely you are to vote Republican.

“The Republicans are the ones who are desperate to retake the office, and they’re the ones who are really willing to write the big checks.”

Poll after poll suggests that many people don’t like the idea of super PACS, and the influence they appear to buy.

But Anita McBride, a former official in the George W Bush administration, and now a politics professor at American University in Washington DC, says the Supreme Court ruling means no one is doing anything illegal: “We can argue about what the perception is about where the money is coming from, different from the legal issue, my point is people are using this system that is allowed.”

People may dismiss the idea of money overpowering the battle of ideas, but in the last three presidential elections, the campaign that raised more money won.

The economy will undoubtedly be the most important campaign issue – so one way or another – this is all going to come down to money.

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