Super PAC's Party Like It's 1896

In Big Money Race, Early Signs of Trouble for Democrats

Cross of Gold: Populist William Jennings Bryan terrified wealthy industrialists into pouring funds into the campaign of William McKinley. Is the same thing happening with Super PAC donations in 2012?
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Cross of Gold: Populist William Jennings Bryan terrified wealthy industrialists into pouring funds into the campaign of William McKinley. Is the same thing happening with Super PAC donations in 2012?

By J.J. Goldberg

Published April 27, 2012, issue of May 04, 2012.
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‘There are two things that are important in politics,” Republican power-broker Mark Hanna once said. “The first is money and I can’t remember what the second one is.”

Hanna posed his riddle, if that’s what it was, more than a century ago, while managing William McKinley’s successful 1896 White House bid. It’s remained a mystery ever since. What’s the second imperative in politics, after money?

This might be the year we learn the answer. After all, in certain ways it’s 1896 again. That was the year that Hanna single-handedly invented the modern, cash-driven, always-on-message presidential campaign. With Democratic contender William Jennings Bryan’s fiery economic populism scaring the pants off the business class, money was pouring into the McKinley campaign faster than Hanna could count it. If there was a second success factor, he didn’t need to know it.

Hanna’s excesses prompted a series of campaign finance reforms over the years, muddying his insights. This year, however, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, we’re back where we started. Everything old is new again, right down to the populist-sounding Democrats, panicked tycoons and resultant rivers of Republican cash. This is a fine moment to watch the money in action and see what, if anything, crosses its path.

The first thing to note is that nobody knows what’s going on this year. The fallout from Citizens United has everyone flummoxed. On one recent day, April 20, following the campaigns’ latest filings with the Federal Election Commission, The Washington Post carried a banner headline reading “Obama Posts Big Cash Advantage Over Romney,” while the New York Times’ front-page declared, “Obama Faces Dropoff in Big Donations.”

Similar confusion dogs the number-crunchers. Numerous sources contrast the Obama campaign’s totals through this election cycle, nearly $197 million, with the Romney campaign’s paltry $88 million. Sounds bad for the GOP, right? Now look at the combined donations to all the Republican contenders: a tidy $220 million. If both parties’ donors continue giving at their pace to date, Romney will far outstrip Obama by November.

That may overestimate Romney’s capacity. Some of his rivals’ donors will doubtless back off now that their favorites have quit. Moreover, Obama can expect his donations to pick up now that he’s got a fight on his hands.

Democrats also enjoy an advantage in total donations to the two parties’ national committees. That partly reflects last year’s administrative chaos in the Republican National Committee. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, which analyzes FEC reports, the Democratic National Committee and its affiliated House and Senate funding bodies have raised a total of $416 million toward the 2012 races. Their Republican counterparts have raised $340 million.

The real story this year, however, is the rise of super PACs, the Supreme Court-spawned money machines that are permitted to take gifts of any size, including from corporations. In one sense they’re not behaving the way they were expected to: Most of their money is coming not from corporations but from super-rich individuals. In another sense, though, they’re behaving just as expected: They’re raising gargantuan sums, mostly to benefit Republicans.


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