December 7, 2012

Counting last-minute donations, election spending tops $2B

The election was the first in which "super" political action committees spent hundreds of millions on television ads, especially those supporting Mitt Romney.

Jack Gillum and Stephen Braun / The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Remarkable for its last-minute surge of contributions, the U.S. presidential election witnessed unprecedented sums of cash boosting two men in their quest for the White House. It was a cost that surpassed $2 billion and sometimes came with the cloak of anonymity for billionaire donors.

The election was the first in which "super" political action committees spent hundreds of millions on television ads, especially those supporting GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Super PACs, like those helping President Barack Obama, benefited from deep wells of money from wealthy donors and corporations.

A handful of mega donors stood out. The most prominent were Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, who together contributed nearly $100 million — as promised — to help Republican candidates. On the left, celebrities like Jeffrey Katzenberg poured millions of dollars into efforts helping Obama win a second term.

More than $230 million in super PAC money bolstered Romney's candidacy, adding to the massive haul by the Republican Party for the former Massachusetts governor. The pro-Romney super PACs were able to hammer the president in swing states with meticulously designed ads highlighting a woeful economy and what they portrayed as Obama's failed record.

A sizable chunk of that cash flowed in just weeks before Election Day. Because Federal Election Commission rules don't require groups to report until late November the money they've raised since mid-October, many top donors escaped scrutiny until after the Nov. 6 voting. The Adelsons' $33 million gift to two pro-Romney super PACs, as well as $3 million from Larry Ellison, head of software giant Oracle Corp., were not divulged until Thursday.

The pro-Obama Priorities USA Action raked in nearly 20 percent of the money it raised this election during the final weeks of the campaign. Much of that $15 million haul, records show, came from repeat million-dollar donors like Fred Eychaner, the founder of Chicago-based Newsweb Corp., and from the ranks of Renaissance Technologies, whose investors donated $4 million in the campaign's final weeks.

Those pots of money, in turn, enabled super PACs to dole out millions of dollars on pricey television ads in important swing states, including some where razor-thin ballot margins had been forecast for Election Day.

"The super PACs helped Romney run a more competitive race," said R. Donahue Peebles, an Obama fundraiser from New York. "But, in the end, money can take a candidate only so far."

Surpassing the $2 billion record was long expected after an election season dominated by the supercharged competitive pressures that both campaigns faced in mounting massive fundraising blitzes to stoke expensive media ad battles and ground wars. The Obama and Romney campaigns mobilized competing squads of ultra-wealthy fundraisers, sought aid from free-spending allied super PACS and deployed multimillion-dollar media broadsides and armies of organizers.

Romney and the GOP reported raising more than $920 million by election's end, compared with Obama and the Democrats' $960 million. Obama had been largely outspent by Romney and allied groups during the summer, but the president's campaign began to close that gap as Election Day approached.

Campaigns and outside groups brought in more than $1 billion to help each candidate, an Associated Press review of financial records showed. In 2008, Obama shattered records by raising more than $750 million in donations. Romney's campaign, for its part, said it stretched its dollar competing against an incumbent.

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