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Who Benefits In Money Game, Democracy Or Donors?

There's a new stimulus plan underway in America: $5.8 billion is being injected into the U.S. economy, particularly in states like Ohio, Virginia, Colorado and Florida.

We're talking of course about campaign spending, and this year's elections will be the most expensive in history. In fact, by the time we all head to the voting booth on Election Day, nearly $6 billion will have been spent on campaigns — big and small — all across America.

Much of that money will come from superPACs and other outside groups free to spend as much as they want, mostly on Obama and Romney ads.

Pro-Republican groups are way ahead of pro-Democratic ones in raising that money, thanks in part to wealthy donors. According to New Yorker writer Jane Mayer, that has been President Obama's Achilles' heel — his aversion to cultivating wealthy donors for his campaign.

Mayer tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz that Obama's stance goes back to right after he was elected.

"During the inauguration, there were already grumbles from big donors who were complaining about the sorts of seats they got," Mayer says. She says similar complaints were heard at Obama's first holiday parties, when the president didn't pose for pictures with big donors.

Mayer says that sense of entitlement from big donors comes partly from Bill Clinton's presidency. Clinton, she says, "absolutely coddled big donors," with alleged perks like sleeping in the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House.

"Obama is just not like that," she says. "These are not his best friends, and he just doesn't do business the same way."

Despite this aversion to cozying up to the super rich, Mayer says Obama is also a pragmatist, and reminds us that his 2008 presidential bid was funded entirely through private donations of mostly small and medium donors.

"He's been able to do that because of the unusual career he's had," she says. "He rose so fast to national prominence that he never really had to cultivate a donor network."

If the Romney campaign succeeds in raising more money than Obama this election, Mayer says it is still unclear what impact that might have. And though he doesn't need to match Romney dollar-for-dollar, he needs to be competitive, she says.

"The question is whether his message gets through," Mayer says. "This is a story ... to see how much of a punch [the money] really packs and we really won't know until Election Day."

Money's Indirect Impact

So how much of an impact could all of that outside money have, at least on the presidential level? So far, it doesn't appear like it's having much at all.

Sheila Krumholz, with the Center for Responsive Politics, tells Raz that the money could have an impact in a different way, however.

"I think the money will be very targeted ... in the swing states and in specific places," Krumholz says. "[But] we will not know when the money will drop, where [it will drop] and where it's coming from."

This added dynamism, Krumholz says, makes the race more about the money than the merits of the candidate. In addition, she says the large corporate and trade union donors aren't interested in democracy but in a return in their investment.

"They have an agenda," she says. "The problem is we may not know who stands to gain and what they will get in the end."

Though it is hard to tell how much will be spent by many of these hidden donors, Krumholz estimates it could be more than $1 billion this election.

At a minimum, Krumholz says Congress should pass a narrowly tailored disclose act that ensures disclosures of the donors to superPACs.

Money Race Continues

The biggest pro-Romney superPAC, Restore our Future, is closing in on $100 million raised. By contrast, the pro-Obama superPAC, Priorities USA, has brought in about a third of that amount.

That could change in the coming weeks as Rahm Emanuel, Chicago mayor and former White House chief of staff, begins to help Priorities USA. Emanuel is one of the best Democratic fundraisers.

Still, according to Bill Burton, the group's founder, Democrats should be worried. He tells Raz that even though Mitt Romney might not seem like that impressive of a candidate to most Democrats, he is still a real threat to President Obama because of the money involved.

"Republicans of means are more motivated to engage in this race," Burton says. "If you're someone who is at an oil company or on Wall Street, and you really want oil companies or Wall Street to be deregulated, then giving $10 [million] or $20 million is a very small investment."

Though he works at a superPAC, Burton supports a proposed amendment to effectively overturn the Supreme Court decision that allowed for unlimited corporate and union money in politics and paved the way for superPACs. He says the campaign finance system is broken and needs to be fixed.

"This is not the way democracy should work and campaign finance reform is an important thing," Burton says.

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