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Ex-Lobbyist Jack Abramoff: Money and Elections Do Mix, Except When Bribery Is Involved

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The Republican candidates for president face off tonight in the last debate before the next round of primaries on Tuesday, Feb. 28, in Arizona and Michigan. Ahead of the critical Super Tuesday primaries set for March 6, these two races gained importance, not only in terms of delegates but in terms of momentum, after Rick Santorum swept Mitt Romney in the trifecta of races held earlier this month in Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri. (See: Ralph Nader's Advice to Gingrich on a Third Party Run: "Go for It!")

The two candidates are now in a virtual tie in Michigan, but Romney still has a slight edge over Santorum in the Arizona, according to an NBC/Marist poll of likely Republican voters. In Arizona, Romney has 43% of the support and Santorum 27%, followed by Newt Gingrich with 16% and Ron Paul in fourth place with 11%. Meanwhile in Michigan, Romney is favored by 37% of voters versus 35% who are supporting Santorum.

The race has certainly stayed hot, with no clear frontrunner to date. But in light of the poll results and where the candidates stand on the issues, what's really making the most headlines these days is the amount of money being spent this election and who's spending it.

The campaigns of the presidential candidates, including all Republican contenders and President Obama, have raised $330 million thus far, according the New York Times' interactive charts on campaign finance. Obama leads the pack, having raised $151 million since 2008. Romney comes in a distant second having raised around $64 million. In just the month of January, the Republican campaigns raise around $21 million. Romney's campaign raised $6.5 million 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, according to the most recent report from the Federal Election Commission.

On the other hand, the "Super PACs" supporting the top Republican candidates raised around $22 million in January and ended the month with $5 million more than the campaigns themselves. The inflow of money to Super PACs resulted from the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which allows individuals and corporation to give unlimited contributions to the candidates of their choice. (See: Super PACs: It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's — Well, It's complicated)

As a result, the money has not stopped flowing from some of the country's wealthiest, like Peter Thiel who has given the pro-Ron Paul Super PAC Endorse Liberty $2.6 million. Casino mogul Sheldon Adleson has given the pro-Gingrich Winning Our Future $11 million to date and is considering giving him another $10 million to $100 million. (See: Rise of the Super PACs: U.S. Votes Essentially Bought, Says Reuters' Felix Salmon)

The candidates have almost come to rely on the Super PAC financing, but the question now is: Can money buy an election?

There is perhaps no better person to weigh in on the subject than former Washington insider and lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who knows all too well what money can buy you in D.C. He spent years building influence with many of our elected officials, bestowing them lavish gifts, dinners and campaign contributions. All that stopped in 2006 when he plead guilty to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials. He subsequently served 43 months in jail.

"There is no question money on both sides is going to win this election," says Abramoff who is also the author of the new book, Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption From America's Most Notorious Lobbyist.

Earlier this month, President Obama reversed his stance on contributions from outside interest groups and pushed big donors to contribute to the Super PAC in his favor, Priorities USA Action. The pro-Obama Super PAC, founded by two of his former aides, raised nearly $60,000 in January.

If money continues to influence the presidential election and the entire political process in the country, isn't there a case for it to stop? Do we need to get the money out of politics? Abramoff says, no, but with a caveat.

"I think we need to get certain money out. I think we need to get the money out that wants something back ... . Because that money is bribery money," he explains to The Daily Ticker's Henry Blodget in the accompanying interview. "In terms of the other money, personally, I feel that if somebody wants to give money because they believe in somebody [or] they believe in their candidacy and they are not asking for something, let them give all the money they have as long as we know about it and as long as it is public."

On the flip side, others would argue that money is not the only answer to getting elected. (See: Money & Politics: Freakonomics Author Gives "Big Fat No" to Idea Money Buys Elections)

Take for example Texas Governor Rick Perry, who amassed a lot of money only to lose it all after flubbing debate after debate. Fast forward to today. Gingrich has lost his allure even with the multimillion-dollar backing of Adelson, and Santorum has surged back with relatively little support.

"I don't think there is any doubt that money alone won't do it -- an odious character can come forward with tons of money and go nowhere," says Abramoff. "I think you have to be a substantial candidate who people want to vote for, and unfortunately Governor Perry did not present himself like that."

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