TOPICS > Politics

With Campaign Trail Flooded by Cash, Political Fundraising Post-Citizens United

September 20, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
When the Supreme Court upheld the Citizens United case, the government no longer could prohibit or restrict independent political expenditures by corporations. Judy Woodruff talks to The Atlantic's James Bennet and the Washington Post's Ann Gerhart for more on how political fundraising has evolved this election cycle.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Ahead of the midnight deadline, Romney’s campaign announce that he had $50.4 million in the bank as of August 31. Romney also must pay back about $15 million of a $20 million loan he took out just before his convention.

The president’s team hasn’t yet released its cash-on-hand figure for the end of August.

And we’re taking a step back now to understand more about how political fundraising has evolved this election cycle.

For that, we’re joined by James Bennet, who writes about the aftereffects of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in the October edition of “The Atlantic” magazine. He’s the editor in chief there. And Ann Gerhart, she’s a national political writer at The Washington Post.

And it’s good to have you both with us.

ANN GERHART, The Washington Post: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ann Gerhart, let me start with you.

In the last few days, we have had, I guess you could call it, a table’s-eye view of a $50,000-a-couple fundraiser that Mitt Romney attended last May. There were controversial comments that he made there.

But, setting what he said aside, how typical was that event and what we have heard about it, what we saw of it, of all the fundraisers that are being held for both campaign this season?

ANN GERHART: Well, I think that fund raiser is the kind of fundraiser that sparks interest, because those people paid $50,000 for an OK dinner, nothing special, but to have that kind of intimate exchange with the candidate.

There are all kinds of fundraisers, the ones that are $100 that are intended to bring out young people, and then sometimes at those, if you pay $2,500, maybe you will get your picture with the first lady. There’s kind of like tiered things.

And so these exclusive fundraisers, Romney has developed throughout this campaign. In fact, he is back in Palm Beach County this evening to do another one. So…

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what kind of people — we know they are obviously people with money. But are they businesspeople, celebrities? What kind of folks are we talking about are able to do this?

ANN GERHART: I think that he has a lot of equity people. I think each candidate has his or her own crowd.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about…

ANN GERHART: John Edwards had lawyers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

ANN GERHART: He has equity people. The people at the one in Boca Raton, at which he was speaking, there were a couple doctors there who may have been investors of the man whose house it was, who has an equity fund.

And I think that, you know, donors usually fall broadly into one of two categories — I don’t know if James would agree with this — but ideological donors and access donors.

And access donors want a kind of specific regulatory control to what they do. And ideological donors believe in a cause or the party’s causes, you know?

George Soros, who gave a lot of money to the Democrats, is someone who didn’t seek to influence any particular piece of legislation, but felt very strongly about a broad array of progressive policies. So, equity people talk a lot about taxes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yes.

ANN GERHART: High donors at both parties, people have told me, always talk a lot about their taxes…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Talk a lot about taxes.

ANN GERHART: … whether they’re Democrats or Republicans or part of the Green Party.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: James Bennet, would you agree that — roughly with that breakdown?

And I also want to ask you the difference between the donors who are giving to the candidates and the parties and those who are giving a huge amount of money to these super PACs.

JAMES BENNET, “The Atlantic”: I think that’s a very good analysis, very good breakdown that Ann just gave.

One thing that should be noted is, the very fact that both candidates are fundraising right now to the degree they are — and they’re holding more fundraisers in some weeks now than they are public events — is itself a radical change.

We always feel like there’s so much money in politics; nothing really changes. But there’s been a public financing system in place since the Watergate era for presidential candidates.

This is the first time both major party candidates have rejected that system. And they’re frantically trying to raise as much money as they can, because so much is pouring in from the outside.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And the money is being spent, we know, just quickly, on television advertising, a lot of it on consultants, people who work for them, the ground — so-called ground game organizations.

JAMES BENNET: The ground game, direct mail, all those sorts of things. Some of it simply goes to enrich political operatives. But advertising remains the lion’s share of it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you write a lot in your piece, you write it’s sort of the philosophical argument about the pros and cons of big, big money in elections.

JAMES BENNET: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Are the people who give to these outside groups, the super PACs that were made possible by the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, different from those who give to the candidates directly?

JAMES BENNET: No, no. In many cases, it’s the very same people simply seeking another way. They have hit their — the limits. You can still only give $2,500 as a single donor to a presidential candidate.

They hit that limit and then they can give as much as they want to one of the super PACs.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you spent a lot of time talking with a conservative lawyer named James Bopp, who’s been out there for a while advocating unlimited giving. What’s his main argument for this?

JAMES BENNET: The fundamental argument, which he has now successfully pushed through the courts up to the Supreme Court and used to really batter down the regulations around campaign finance to deregulate the system, is that money is speech, that this is free speech, it’s a First Amendment issue.

People should be able to support whatever candidate they want whatever way they choose. And he resents the very term outside group.

He says that itself betrays a bias, that American democracy doesn’t permit the notion of outside groups. They’re all — we’re supposed to be including as many people as possible in the process.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ann, from what you know of having covered politics a long time and also covering these kinds of fundraising events, how comfortable are the people who are giving with the publicity that may or may not come along?

A lot of times, their names are not disclosed, but when they are, how do they feel about that?

ANN GERHART: Well, in many ways, there’s been also sort of the social and cultural aspect of giving among a certain clutch of people.

 

And so you will have people say they would like to remain anonymous, of course. And then, if the campaign leaks the name of their bundlers — and these are people who actually have collected the maximum from a variety of other people. So let’s say they have raised several million dollars for the campaign.

They will say things like, yes, I just really didn’t want my name to get out.

But there’s a sort of sense of pride and positioning. If you do enough of that, as we know, you may get an ambassadorship and a nice posting, as opposed to a horrible place like Syria.

So, I think that they are not always comfortable. Some of them are. The idea of them being closed to the public is so they can feel free to ask questions.

JAMES BENNET: I…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Go ahead.

JAMES BENNET: To give a follow on that, I think it depends again on the donor.

I think, in general, they’re very happy to have their names known the candidate, not necessarily known publicly, particularly the people who view this as a transactional kind of relationship.

And one of the things that’s changed now is that we’re seeing a tremendous amount this cycle of completely undisclosed money pouring into this campaign.

We don’t know where it’s coming from and we don’t even know where it’s being spent in a lot of cases.

And that’s because people are exploiting a loophole in the tax law through these so-called 501(c)(4) groups, which are meant to be — so, public welfare groups are being hijacked and used for attack ads.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just quickly, you see this just continuing at this rate?

JAMES BENNET: Yes, I think we’re at the very beginning of this.

Unfortunately, it’s a sign — it’s partly the Citizens United decision, as you say, and it’s partly a completely broken regulatory system. There are things that we could do, that it’s not a question of just the courts. Congress could act to compel disclosure. The IRS could tighten loopholes. The Federal Election Commission could insist on tighter rules.

So there are things that could be done. But we need — it’s a symptom. It’s both unfortunately a cause and an effect of our political paralysis.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We are going to leave it there.

We thank you both for being with us, James Bennet, Ann Gerhart.

ANN GERHART: Thank you.

JAMES BENNET: Thanks very much.