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Rise of the Super PACs: U.S. Votes Essentially Bought, Says Reuters’ Felix Salmon

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If you had any lingering hopes that U.S. presidential elections are based on ideas and candidates, think again. More than in years passed, money is turning out to be the biggest determining factor during this race for the White House due to the unlimited amounts of cash flowing into the coffers that support the candidates, those things called super PACs. (See: Super PACs: It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's—Well, It's complicated)

The super PACs supporting the top Republican presidential candidates raised around $22 million in January and ended the month with $5 million more than the campaigns themselves, according to the most recent report from Federal Election Commission. The candidates' campaigns raised slightly less at $21.1 million. Mitt Romney's campaign raised $6.5 million in January and spent nearly three times as much; former House Speaker New Gingrich raised $5.6 million and spent $6 million while both Rick Santorum and Ron Paul raised $4.5 million.

Due to the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, individuals and corporations are now able to contribute as much as they would like to a super PAC. As a result, the money has not stopped flowing from some of the country's wealthiest and the candidates have almost come to rely on the financing in their favor.

PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel donated another $1.7 million to the pro-Ron Paul group Endorse Liberty in January. In total, the Silicon Valley insider has given $2.6 million to the Texas congressman's super PAC. Mutual fund investor Foster Friess continues to donate to the pro-Rick Santorum Red, White and Blue Fund after donating hundreds of thousands of dollars in 2011. And Forbes is now reporting that casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and his wife, who have already donated a combined $11 million to Newt Gingrich's Winning Our Future super PAC, is considering committing yet another $10 million to $100 million to the former House Speaker or some other candidate.

Without question, the Adelsons have single-handedly kept Gingrich's bid for the White House alive. But, the fact that one or two people has such a big influence on the campaign and general election begs the question: Can elections be bought under Citizens United? (See: Money & Politics: Freakonomics Author Gives "Big Fat No" to Idea Money Buys Elections)

"It is hard to say it is unconstitutional what is going on, but that doesn't mean it isn't broken," says Felix Salmon, financial blogger at Reuters who joined The Daily Ticker's Henry Blodget to discuss the latest campaign finance figures and the impact of money on the U.S. political system. "I can't think of any other political system in the world where votes are essentially bought." (See: Florida Primary: Romney Leads Gingrich by 14% After Bombarding Airwaves)

Salmon is intimately familiar with the elections across the pond in the United Kingdom. He says general elections there only last four weeks versus two years in the U.S. And in Britain, elections go off, "relatively smoothly with relatively small amounts of money," he explains. "[But] if you can't buy these incredibly expensive television campaigns in the U.S. you cannot get votes and so politics becomes entirely about who is best at raising cash so they can then turnaround and spend that cash on local television stations and then buy votes that way."

In Salmon's estimation, money will always influence elections around the world, but nothing like what we have here in the U.S. And unfortunately, he's not hopeful the tide will turn anytime soon.

"It gets bigger and bigger every four years and I've never seen it go down," says Salmon of campaign financing the U.S. "I see no way you are going to be able to reverse this. It is a secular trend."

For more on Citizens United and the presidential election, see:

Citizens United: 'Terrible and Reckless' and Should Be Overturned, Says Pro-Democracy Activist

"Occupy Courts": Movement Targets Supreme Court's Citizens United Decision

Obama Pushes for Super PAC Donations: Is His Decision Rife with Hypocrisy?

Who Is President Matters Much Less Than We Think: Freakonomics' Steve Dubner


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