The Washington Post

Why Mitt’s mystery donor doesn’t (really) matter

LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 20: Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign stop in front of vacant stores of the Valley Plaza shopping center on July 20, 2011 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Campaign finance watchdogs are up in arms over a report by NBC’s terrific investigative reporter Mike Isikoff about what looks like a purposely-obfuscated donation made to a super PAC supportive of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

The donation — for $1 million — was made to a group known as “Restore Our Future” by something called “W. Spann LLC, a company that was founded in March and disbanded in July.

It appears as though the express purpose of the group was to make the donation under the cloak of anonymity — something that super PACs, which must report their contributions and expenditures to the Federal Election Commission, are not supposed to allow.

Is such behavior a new opening in the ever-increasing attempt to end- run campaign finance law? Yup. Will it impact Romney’s current front-running campaign for the 2012 presidential race in any way, shape or form? Probably not.

The reality of political campaigns is that where the money in a particular races comes from is of almost no interest to the average voter.

Take the 2010 election, for example.

The White House spent scads of time trying to draw voters’ attention to the spending by conservative-aligned groups like Americans for Prosperity, the Chamber of Commerce and American Crossroads.

“The insidious thing about it is they are funding negative ads all over the country against Democratic candidates paid for by major corporate special interests who don’t have to disclose their participation, the oil industry, Wall Street, insurance industry,” said then White House senior adviser David Axelrod during an appearance on ABC’s “This Week” in late September 2010.

Voters weren’t persuaded, handing Republicans a 63-seat gain in the House and a six-seat pickup in the Senate. Exit polling showed the economy was, by far, the most important issue in voters’ minds while campaign finance reform and/or spending by outside groups didn’t factor heavily at all.

Then go back to the 2004 election — the last time outside interest groups played a role as large as they will likely have in 2012. Looking there, you’ll find yet more evidence that attacks on “shadowy” groups rarely matter much to voters.

In that election, Democrats built a tri-partite shadow party — America Coming Together, Media Fund and America Votes — that spent tens of millions of dollars (many of which were donated by a handful of wealthy individuals) to defeat President George W. Bush.

Republicans sought to cast Democrats as hypocrites for supporting campaign finance reform while backing these sorts of groups. Voters yawned.

Meanwhile on the conservative side, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth was hammering away at the military credentials of Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry .

Democrats pounded the shady financing of the group but voters were far more interested in the charges leveled, which Kerry was slow to respond to and ultimately undermined one of the most appealing aspects of his resume.

The same story — voters largely ignoring attempts to turn questions about the origins of campaign cash into vote-able issues — can be told in races up and down the ballot since, well, forever, in politics.

Barring evidence of criminal activity, money in politics is almost never a decisive factor in an election.

And so, while Romney — and the people behind “Restore Our Future” — would absolutely prefer that this donation never became a story, they are also not staying awake at night strategizing about how badly this will hurt his campaign. Because it almost certainly won’t.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.


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