Romney’s Big Fundraising Month and the Culture of Political Giving

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Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney participates during the Wolfeboro Independence Day parade on July 4, 2012 in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire.

Mitt Romney had a banner month in June. His campaign and the Republican National Committee raised $106 million, marking a large post-primary consolidation of Republican funds, and a full $35 million more than President Obama and the Democrats managed to raise. We don’t have their official filings yet, but here’s what we do know: Something’s changing in the world of campaign finance.

In June 2008, Democrats raised a similar figure to this year’s tally, but John McCain and the RNC only took in $48 million. That was a grim year for Republicans, still living in the shadow of George W. Bush’s presidency and McCain didn’t exactly ignite conservative passions. But by most accounts, neither does Romney. And yet the Porsches are lining up in the Hamptons like never before. What’s going on?

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One possible explanation is that donors are animated by the prospects of defeating an incumbent they don’t like. That’s certainly true for many Republicans, and it has historical precedent–John Kerry used Democratic anger at Bush to out-raise the incumbent in the spring of 2004 after wrapping up his own primary. But that kind of sentiment isn’t the complete picture. Incumbents usually excel at fundraising because donors are often more interested in access to the halls of power than any particular ideology. Sitting Presidents already have the power, and win re-election more often than not.

So does that mean that donors are placing their bets on Romney because they don’t think Obama will be re-elected in an especially bad economy? It’s hard to say, but the online market at InTrade, a fairly reliable gauge of elite conventional wisdom (even if that wisdom is reliably wrong), doesn’t reflect that theory. It has the President’s re-election chances at 56%.

Part of the fundraising equation is the candidate himself. Romney knows how to talk to wealthy captains of industry because he’s one himself. He speaks yacht. McCain was probably more comfortable in a VFW hall than on a walled estate with Randolph and Mortimer Duke, and his history with campaign finance reform didn’t help. He actively rebuked “soft money” gifts, while Romney invites them. And that’s an important part of something bigger.

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There seems to be a cultural shift under way, the same one that’s driving money to conservative super PACs while Democratic operatives scrounge for scraps. Dems have traditionally relied on more small-dollar donations; without looking at the FEC filings, I’m guessing that Romney’s lead is mostly fueled by large gifts, although his campaign says $22.3 million of June’s total came in donations of $250 or less, a larger percentage than during primary months, albeit still trailing Obama’s numbers in recent filings. Some of the people who give these large gifts are the same ones funding Republican super PACs.

This isn’t the Citizens United scenario campaign finance reform advocates warned about, where secretive donors funnel their money to outside groups through shell corporations. Republican donors are prouder than ever of their wealth and its political utility to Republican groups, official and unoffical. Anecdotes from Romney’s weekend fundraising junket in the Hamptons suggest that they can’t wait to tell people about it.

“He is a socialist. His idea is find a problem that doesn’t exist and get government to intervene,” Mr. [Ted] Conklin said from inside a gold-colored Mercedes as his wife, Carol Simmons, nodded in agreement.

Ms. Simmons paused to highlight what she said was her husband’s generous spirit: “Tell them who’s on your yacht this weekend! Tell him!”

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Democratic donors just don’t feel the same way. Liberal hand-wringing over the effects of money on politics after the Citizens United decision seems to have made them more hesitant to give. It makes them feel icky. Compare the Conklin yacht story with this one from the Times , in which two representatives of a Democratic super PAC woo a donor aboard his boat.

[Bill] Burton and [Paul] Begala climbed aboard the outsize Mostyn vessel, All or Nothing, and the attractive first mate handed them cans of Michelob Ultra. A four-hour conversation ensued. [Steve] Mostyn and his wife, Amber (who is also an attorney), were congenial but blunt. They were not fans of super PACs — political action committees that can receive unlimited donations from individuals, corporations and unions, usually for the purpose of saturating the airwaves with attack ads — and were appalled by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010, which made such entities possible. For that matter, the Mostyns weren’t entirely happy with Obama.

The President still has plenty of wealthy donors, especially among the Hollywood glamour and Silicon Valley nerd chic sets. And there are other factors to the overall fundraising numbers: The Obama campaign worries about complacency, as evidenced by their frequent reminders in fundraising emails that the campaign finance cards are stacked against them, and the official fundraising tally may list back in Obama’s direction after election really heats up. Despite Kerry’s fundraising surge in the spring of 2004, Bush outspent him by $40 million in the end. But Romney’s super PAC money and the culture of political giving on the right has changed the balance of power in an incumbent election. $106 million in June is just a small taste of what’s to come.

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