Very wealthy donors are likely to play a greater role in this election cycle in the wake of recent court decisions that have loosened rules for campaign contributions. That will only heighten one of the dominant narratives of the 2012 campaign: the nation’s rising income inequality and the outsize political influence of the super-wealthy.
This year is shaping up to be a reprise of the 2004 cycle, which saw big donations flow in for Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) an President George W. Bush.
Although donors are limited to giving no more than $5,000 directly to a campaign, new rules allow them to give to “super PACs” that run independent ads supporting the candidates. Donations to super PACs are not limited, so billionaires can donate as much as they want. And, given the changes in campaign laws, it is likely that one of those donors will top the record $24 million that hedge-fund founder George Soros spent in 2004 to support Kerry.
“The only limit on the resources is the willingness of the donors to give,” said Anthony Corrado, a professor of government at Colby College and a former Democratic official. “It doesn’t take long to transfer $500,000 from one account to another.”
Romney’s richest donor so far is hedge-fund titan John Paulson, who is worth an estimated $16 billion, according to Forbes. Paulson has given $1 million to the Restore Our Future super PAC, which former Romney aides set up to support his candidacy. The PAC and a spokesman for Paulson declined to comment. The Romney campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Obama had a large head start, having amassed $157 million by the end of September for his campaign and the Democratic Party, more than the GOP candidates combined. But the Republicans could tip the balance going forward, given widespread disenchantment with the president’s policies — especially among the wealthy.
This campaign will represent a marked difference from the 2008 cycle, which had a rare drop in big donations and spending by interest groups, largely because Obama and Republican nominee John McCain eschewed their support.
But this time, the Obama campaign no longer objects to help from interest groups. That was broadly interpreted as a tacit admission that, after major GOP gains in the 2010 midterm elections, the outside help was critical.
Romney has attracted the support of Redskins owner Dan Snyder and other billionaires, including California real estate developer Donald Bren, who is worth $12 billion, and developer and publisher Sam Zell, who is worth $5 billion. A spokesman for Snyder declined to comment and those for Bren and Zell did not return requests for comment.