Mitt Romney, Obama, and Money in Presidential Campaigns

Mitt Romney has been under some intense scrutiny lately as a result of recent revelations about his role in outsourcing American jobs and his personal offshore bank accounts. As a more detailed image of Romney’s financial track record has emerged it has become increasingly clear (as if it wasn’t clear already) that Romney is a prototypical 1-percenter: a wealthy, white, male who has bounced back and forth between government and some of the US’s most powerful and profitable corporations; an advocate for privatization who is directly responsible for the loss of many American jobs. Unsurprisingly, Romney has tried to skirt the issue as much as possible and has been less than forthcoming when questioned about his net worth, offshore accounts, and exploitation of tax loopholes. Obama has capitalized on the negative press by reminding us that he is a friend of labor, the middle class, and has advocated for taxing the richest 2% of US citizens.

While the scrutiny is certainly warranted, it is also misleading. Romney is no aberration. While his wealth is extreme when compared to past presidential candidates, Romney is an example of the rule, not an exception to it. American presidents have historically been significantly wealthier than the electorate and that wealth is usually a prerequisite to running a successful bid for office.

In 2010, 24/7 Wall St. conducted an analysis of the net worth of all 44 US presidents. The analysis revealed that most (all but 9) presidents have been millionaires in today’s dollars. Mitt Romney’s estimated net worth of $250 million would certainly place him in the top 5 wealthiest presidents but he would be overshadowed by George Washington ($525 million net worth in today’s dollars) and JFK (who’s uncollected family estate was worth nearly $1 billion). Obama’s net worth is estimated at $5 million.

It’s little mystery why wealthy men have had a monopoly on the head of state. Only property owning, white males had the right to vote until the mid 1800’s. Poll taxes further disenfranchised non-wealthy Americans up until the 1960s in some states. But more important than these now unconstitutional restrictions on voting are the ever rising costs of running an effective campaign.

Since Lincoln, the combined cost of most presidential elections have hovered around $200 million or $300 million in 2011 dollars. The Bush and Kerry election set a record of about $900 million in 2004 which was eclipsed 4 years later when Obama, McCain, and other presidential hopefuls spent about $1.35 billion. Obama spent a record $730 million on his 2008 campaign.

Obviously, if Obama’s net worth is estimated at just $5 million, the vast majority of his campaign funds, as is the case with almost all major elections, were donated by others. While Obama’s campaign was marked by a level of grassroots campaigning and fundraising that was quite unique in this era, most of that money came from the extremely wealthy. Among his top 20 contributors were Goldman Sachs, Microsoft, JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, UBS, Morgan Stanley, General Electric, IBM, Time Warner, and Google. McCain’s list of top 20 contributors is similar.

It costs a lot of money to run for president. To get the type of money that’s necessary to organize a successful campaign, candidates spend a lot of time and energy convincing people with a lot of money that they should donate some of their fortune to their cause. Most donations, however, would be better labeled as investments from which these wealthy individuals expect lucrative returns. They expect that once the candidates that they have supported are in office, those candidates will protect their interests. In turn, candidates who hope to be reelected know that they will need to cater to these wealthy donors again and usually make sure not to piss them off too much while they’re in office. The result is a government made up of people who have been elected by the masses but are beholden to a much smaller elite. In most cases, as dramatically evidenced by Romney, not only are our politicians beholden to the wealthy, they are of them. If elected, Romney would probably look out for the wealthy more exclusively than Obama. But Obama also has strong ties to the 1-percent which he is unlikely to sever in a second term.

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