Is the Citizens United ruling politically irrelevant? After all, the Supreme Court decision, along with related lower-court rulings on campaign finance, is in full effect in this election. Yet President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney are essentially neck-and-neck in the money race, each having raised roughly a cool billion.
The financial parity of the parties may be misleading. Casino owner Sheldon Adelson has donated at least $70 million (not all of it reported) to efforts to defeat Obama, according to Mike Allen at Politico. Today, that sum seems hard to comprehend -- although it's possible that a Romney Justice Department is worth even more to Adelson. But if the past decade's inflation rate in political spending keeps up, it's possible that Adelson or someone like him will spend double that amount in 2016.
Obama has developed an unprecedented popular fundraising base. Yes, he is dependent on the wealthy. What candidate isn't? But he has attracted more than 3 million individuals to contribute to his campaign. As he did in 2008, he has raised more than $100 million in donations of $200 or less. His campaign (not including outside groups) has outraised Romney's campaign, which is much more reliant on four-figure contributions, by a ratio of about 3:2.
The two divergent funding sources will do nothing to lessen political polarization. If Al Gore looked at the two camps, he'd be tempted to call it "the people versus the powerful." To surpass Obama, Romney has relied on the kindness of millionaires and billionaires contributing to allied super-PACs and "social welfare" organizations (if your idea of social welfare is an attack ad courtesy of Karl Rove and friends). Together, the Republican super friends have contributed more than $200 million.
Romney's base of Republican plutocrats seems built to last. First, rich people rarely walk away from politics -- it's an environment defined by power and money, their natural habitat. Second, as the rich continue to get richer, they are blessed with even more disposable income to divert to political pastimes.
Obama's funding base, on the other hand, may be the foundation of a transformed Democratic Party, one more rooted in the middle and working classes than it has been for many decades (read the Brooks Jackson classic "Honest Graft" to see Democrats slurping at the same corporate trough as Republicans). Alternatively, Obama's fundraising base may well be a house of cards that will collapse without his historic candidacy. For Democrats in that case, après Obama, le deluge. Can any other Democrat -- even a certain secretary of state -- replicate Obama's money magnet? And if not, can a future Democratic nominee compete for cash with a future Republican nominee?
If Obama wins on Tuesday, he'll leave bitter Republicans walking a trail of tears back to Washington. It shouldn't take more than five minutes for them to begin plotting well-funded revenge. If he loses, Romney will use the powers of incumbency to make this year's Republican money haul look like spare change in 2016.
Democrats have done remarkably well raising money in recent years while calling for higher taxes on the people who have the greatest ability to make donations. But Democratic super-PACs have been crushed in 2012 by Republican super-PACs -- outspent by about three-to-one and maybe more in the final analysis. Due to the shoddiness of campaign finance regulation and the pathetic state of its enforcement, we will never know exactly how much was spent and by whom in this election. But if super-PACs and Rovian social welfare spending are the future, rather than Obama's brand of mass appeal, the Democratic Party could be in trouble.
There is only so much money you can waste on television advertising and phone banks -- and in this election both campaigns arguably exceeded the limit. With future Republican operatives awash in unregulated cash, it won't take long before they devise new and interesting ways of spending it. The temptations will be enormous.
(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.
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