By now we’re all thoroughly sick of the most expensive campaign in U.S. history. Regardless of your ideological affiliation, I assume that I don’t have to convince you that if you know who a candidate’s key donors are, you pretty well know whose agenda will be a priority, and who will be shielded from unfavorable policies. Here’s a reminder of just how difficult it is to follow the money:
Direct campaign donations are only part of the money game. Here are Barack Obama’s and Mitt Romney’s top five contributors, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (OpenSecrets.org). The money comes from “the organizations’ PACs, their individual members or employees or owners, and those individuals’ immediate families”:
Barack Obama (D)
|1||University of California||$927,568|
Mitt Romney (R)
|2||Bank of America||$844,734|
|4||JPMorgan Chase & Co||$749,918|
|5||Credit Suisse Group||$588,841|
OK, this is worth knowing, as far as it goes. We know Obama received a lot of Wall Street funding in 2008; this year most of it is going to Romney. It’s even been said that Mitt Romney’s top donors are from Wall Street, while Barack Obama’s are from tech companies and academia. (“Half true,” Politifact concludes.)
Then there’s the super PACs. The Center for Public Integrity published this list of the top super PAC donors for the 2012 election (including primaries and non-presidential races), with dollar figures that dwarf the previous list. (I won’t reproduce it here, but casino magnate Sheldon Adelson is the top Republican donor with $38.5 million; the National Education Association is the leading Democratic donor with $8.8 mlllion.)
But our laws are structured so that we can’t always get real names — hence the expression, “dark money.” On Thursday, the Center for Responsive Politics reported:
This week, spending by Crossroads GPS, Americans for Prosperity, Patriot Majority and other nondisclosing groups broke $200 million. Almost all of it — 88 percent — went for attack ads, and 83 percent of that negative spending was directed against Democrats. On the flip side, nearly three-quarters of the shadow money spent to support candidates went to help Republicans.
And that’s counting only the spending that has to be reported to the Federal Election Commission: ads explicitly calling for a candidate’s election or defeat, plus “issue ads” that feature a candidate and run in the weeks before an election. Millions more have been spent on issue ads running far enough before an election that they don’t need to be reported anywhere.
While much of the focus this election season has been on super PACs — which can take money from almost any source, but must report their donors to the FEC on a regular basis — these other outside groups have escaped the same scrutiny. That’s in part because we know much less about them, other than the limited spending totals they have to report. Most are 501(c)(4) “social welfare” organizations under the tax code, and their donors can present them with $5 million, $50 million — any amount at all — without fear of having their names made public. Even the IRS will see only group’s topmost donors.
If we can’t limit the money in politics, we at least need to know where it’s coming from.