By VIRGINIA DIBIANCA, CHRISTOPHER EMCH, KRISTEN GARAFANO, KAYLEE LAZZARO
As the 2012 presidential election nears, President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign has regained momentum. The Obama campaign outraised the Romney campaign in the month of August for the first time in three months.
According to Obama’s official re-election campaign website, the Obama campaign raised $114 million in August, while the Mitt Romney campaign raised $111 million. Additionally, 317,000 of the 1,170,000 donators contributed to the campaign for the first time.
In 2008, when Obama ran as a senator, the Obama campaign raised and spent a record $750 million.
Campaigns Forgo Public Financing and Focus on Fundraising
The current campaign finance system, created after the Watergate scandal in 1976, allows candidates to participate in a public financing system and receive federal grants from the government. However, campaigns that accept public financing are subject to spending restrictions.
“We have created a parallel public financing system where the American people… will have as much access and influence over the course and direction of our campaign that has traditionally been reserved for the wealthy and powerful,” Obama said of his decision at a fundraiser in April 2008.
Both candidates in the 2012 election have opted out of public financing, and the fundraising efforts of both will play a major role in the lead up to the election.
According to Federal Election Commission rules, individuals may contribute up to $2,500 to each candidate’s campaign per election.
While the Romney campaign has relied on receiving large donations, the Obama campaign has taken a more grassroots approach.
Only 14 percent of donations to the Obama campaign were of the maximum $2,500, while 48 percent of donations to the Romney campaign were of $2,500, according to the FEC.
Obama’s grassroots approach was especially clear during the month of August. According to Obama’s campaign website, nearly 98 percent of the donations to the Obama campaign were of $250 or less, making the average donation $58.31.
However, direct campaign contributions only tell part of the story, since the national committees of both parties and super political action committees, or super PACs, also contribute largely to a candidate’s fundraising.
Super PACs, No Joking Matter
Like ordinary political action committees, super PACs raise money in support of candidates for public office whose policies favor the agenda of a particular interest group.
The FEC limits PAC donations to candidate and party campaigns. While super PACs may not make direct campaign contributions, the funding they collect is unlimited.
The FEC’s approval of super PACs in 2010 has caused contention across party lines. While Republicans defend Super PACs as a form of unbridled free speech, Democrats view them as a means for corporations to exert undue influence over election outcomes through heavy contributions.
Super PACs have been influential in Obama’s campaign efforts, though he initially opposed them. Priorities USA Action, a super PAC run by former White House aide Bill Burton, raised $10.1 million in support of the President in August, according to their website.
Clouding the super PAC controversy is that of faux-conservative political pundit Stephen Colbert. Entitled Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, the super PAC collects real funds to run phony political ads in an effort to raise awareness about campaign finance.
Colbert inspired Remy Maisel, a sophomore at Pennsylvania State University, to start a super PAC called Penn Staters for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow.
Maisel, a Democrat, is a firm opponent of Super PACs that exist for the purpose of raising campaign funds rather than satire.
“I think they’re the single most dangerous entities in the political arena today,” she said.
Maisel called campaign finance “the most important political issue” because “no real problems can be solved while politicians are busy trying to ingratiate themselves to the right donors.”
She compares her super PAC to Colbert’s because it draws attention to campaign finance among her peers. “We exist obnoxiously,” she said. “That’s my overarching goal.”
Maisel declined to comment on the amount her super PAC has raised for its cause thus far.
Democrats Surging With Fundraising As Race Grows Tighter
In spite of a tight fundraising race, Democrats have been surging ahead recently with celebrity endorsements. Barack Obama’s campaign has raised millions of dollars through super PACs and fundraisers hosted by famous people.
In May, Obama supporter George Clooney raised $15 million for Obama’s campaign at an event held in his Los Angeles home. Tickets cost $40,000 per person with celebrities such as Robert Downey, Jr. and Billy Crystal in attendance.
The Republican National Committee has accused Obama of acting more like a celebrity rather than a politician because of his close connections to superstars.
Republican National Committee Spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski said, “President Obama is headed to Hollywood to hobnob with celebrities while the middle class continues to be squeezed by Obama’s policies.”
Romney Campaign Supported by the Rich but Not Famous
On the other side, Mitt Romney’s fund raising has received support mostly from wealthy business executives. Saturday, he spoke to 1,500 donors at a Beverly Hills hotel raising $6 million.
Over the summer, three South Hampton billionaires hosted fundraising events all over one weekend. The entrance fee reached five-digit numbers and were sell outs.
Hosts included the former United States ambassador to Brazil, Clifford Sobel and the industrialist, David H. Koch. At the Koch event, the charge was $75,000 per couple and $50,000 per person to attend.
Ronald O. Perelman, chairman of Revlon, joined his Hampton neighbors in a fundraiser in his home that charged $5,000 for lunch and $25,000 for a V.I.P reception. This was a departure from Perelman’s previous endorsements that went to Democratic candidates such as Hillary Clinton in 2008 and then Obama.
The decision to turn to the Republican side is reported to be based on Perelman’s dissatisfaction with Obama’s lack of attention to Israel. Perelman supports Orthodox Jewish organizations and keeps a kosher home.
While Obama holds the backing of well-known Hollywood stars, Romney’s rooster of Hollywood followers is less impressive. Romney’s celebrity fan base includes conservative actors such as Chuck Norris, Jon Voight and Donny and Marie Osmond.
The New York Times quoted a Romney financial team member saying, “There’s enough interest in stopping Obama that you don’t need to hire entertainment and celebrity chefs.”
In recent weeks, the Romney’s campaign suffered a setback when a video from a private fund raising event captured him describing 47 percent of Americans as “people who pay no income tax” and are “dependent upon government.”
The video released online by the liberal magazine “Mother Jones” was taped at a May 2012 fundraiser for wealthy donors held at the home of a private equity manager. The video created a stream of criticism against Romney for his insensitive, blunt remarks.
As a final blow, Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan publicly criticized the Republican campaign as “incompetent” calling for Romney to have an intervention with his campaign team.
With less than 40 days to go, Obama is outpacing Romney on fund raising contributions. As of August 31, The New York Times reported that Obama raised $690.1 million to Romney’s $633 million. Early in the election, news outlets speculated that Obama could be the first to raise $1 billion.