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Presidential race may be over, but not campaign finance stories

Photo: Jim Wilson/The New York Times

You’d have to be living in a hut in Antarctica not to know the outcome of the U.S. Presidential race.

Yet, when it comes to campaign finance in Election 2012, there are some interesting trends in terms of the winners and the losers that are less obvious. When campaign 2012 started, the big concern was that the Supreme Court’s groundbreaking Citizens United decision would open the floodgates to unlimited amounts of campaign cash and that the election would be decided by those with big checkbooks and not at the ballot box.

Part of that statement has proved to be true. The current estimate by the Center for Responsive Politics is that total spending in this election cycle will come to $5.8 billion, about seven percent higher than in 2008, which also broke records. The other half of that statement – that checkbooks and not ballots would determine the outcome – has been turned on its head. The race may be over, but not campaign finance stories.

Some of the biggest losers are those who were the biggest givers in the race. Heading that list has to be Linda McMahon, who spent $90 million on two attempts to gain a U.S. Senate seat in Connecticut and failed both times. It is especially painful for McMahon – and perhaps any heirs hoping to get some of that cash one day – that the money came from her own pocket.

There were initial estimates that both President Obama and Mitt Romney would have raised about $1 billion each and that prediction has turned out to be on the money: 2012 Presidential Race / Open Secrets. The final tally is not in, but the most recent figures show that Mr. Romney, the Republican National Committee and superpacs acting on his behalf raised a just over $1 billion, while Obama, the Democratic National Committee and pro-Obama superpacs raised $932 million.

Open Secrets Presidential spending

Click the image for more info from OpenSecrets.org on campaign spending

High on the list of big losers are the well-funded and high profile superpacs set up to support Mr. Romney. American Crossroads and its affiliate, Crossroads GPS, which were operated by Republican strategist Karl Rove, spent more than $175 million and came up short. Not only did they fail to get Romney into the White House, but they also did poorly in the Congressional races they backed, winning fewer than thirty percent of the races they supported.

Others who might be licking their wounds would include billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who spent more than anyone in political history – and all on the losing side. Adelson, who operates casinos around the globe, and his wife spent over $50 million and even accompanied Romney on a fund-raising visit to Israel only to find that his luck had run out. None of the GOP candidates they supported won. | Blue Team Aided by Small Donors, Big Bundlers; Huge Outside Spending Still Comes Up Short

Adelson, however, is in good company. Fellow billionaires Charles and David Koch, whose money helped fuel the Tea Party movement, had vowed to spend up to $400 million on tax-exempt groups that do not have to disclose their donations. The No. 1 goal was to keep Obama out of the White House. | Little to show for cash flood by big donors

Texas also took it on the chin. Texas billionaire Harold Simmons spent almost $24 million on a slate of losing Republican candidates. Ditto for Texas millionaire Bob Perry, who spent $21 million.

Even with superpacs having such a dismal track record, it is doubtful that they will fade from the scene. If there is any truism in campaign finance it is that each year brings more spending, not less. On the Democratic side, far less money was spent by super pacs — $128 million to the GOP’s $409 million. Perhaps that was because Obama didn’t need as much of a boost. Democrats raised a far greater portion of campaign cash from Obama donors who gave directly to his campaign and relied less on outside sources. The Obama campaign took in $632 million compared to $389 million for the Romney campaign – nearly a two-to-one advantage for Obama.

As before, small donors turned out for Obama in big numbers. In this category Obama had a three-to-one lead, raising $214 million from small donors compared to the $70 million in small donations to the Romney campaign.

If the meek shall inherit the earth, small donors might fit that category. But if that means the big guys will sit out the next Presidential race, I wouldn’t bet on it.

About the Author

Leslie Wayne is an adjunct journalism professor at Columbia University and New York University. She's a former award-winning business reporter at The New York Times where she covered Wall Street, politics, banking industry regulatory reform, municipal finance scandals and the aerospace and military industries. Wayne was selected as the inaugural Donald W. Reynolds visiting professor in Business Journalism at Arizona State University in 2010.

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