Mitt Romney and Barack Obama filed their June financial disclosure forms a few days early. Both felt they had something to brag about. Mr Romney raised $106m last month, versus Mr Obama’s $71m. As Mr Romney’s campaign sees it, their man is beginning to stir enthusiasm. Mr Obama’s campaign touted the totals in its own fundraising letter, to show Mr Romney – with his career in venture capital, his Cayman Island partnerships, his speedboat and his only recently closed Swiss bank account – as more clearly than ever the candidate of the rich. But Mr Romney is not the candidate of the rich. He is a candidate of the rich. So are most candidates in American politics, very much including Mr Obama.

Only in the past two months has Mr Romney begun to match his rival’s rate of money-raising. The Republican consultant Ed Rogers estimates that, if you put together Mr Obama’s party funding, campaign funding and sympathetic super-Pacs, you wind up with $471m for Mr Obama versus $264m for Mr Romney. That is leaving out contributions from organised labour, which can run into the hundreds of millions.

Democratic presidential campaigns often outsolicit and outspend Republican ones. This was true of John Kerry in 2004 and it was overwhelmingly so of Mr Obama in his race against John McCain in 2008. He raised $747.8m to Mr McCain’s $351.5m. Nineteen of the 20 richest postcodes in the US gave the majority of their contributions to the Democrats. Even the financial sector, which is breaking in favour of Mr Romney by three-to-one this year, gave most of its contributions to Mr Obama last time. The single-issue lobbies known as “527s” are another elite group that tends to back Democrats. Democratic-leaning 527s raised $284m in 2008, outstripping Republican-leaning ones, which raised only $161m. They maintain an advantage this year, albeit a narrower one. Until the rise of the internet, Democrats were more dependent on big donors than Republicans, but the insurgent candidacies of Howard Dean and Mr Obama changed that.

The historian Anne Applebaum has observed that “when we are offered the choice between Mr Obama and Mr Romney, we are offered a choice between two sets of elites”. Mr Obama, in her view, represents the “post-WASP Ivy League” and Mr Romney the “financial oligarchy”. It would actually be more appropriate to describe these as two sides of the same Janus-faced elite. Mr Romney represents in its acquisitive stage the same elite that Mr Obama represents in its managerial stage. Ivy League universities, as Ms Applebaum hints, are the means whereby primitive accumulation is transformed into noblesse. It shocked Balzac to see nobles forget their ancestors’ humble origins in a mere generation or two. But many a modern-day philanthropist forgets he himself was a crony capitalist less than a business cycle ago.

That Mr Romney’s war chest has lately grown faster than Mr Obama’s is largely a matter of election timetables. Whether people give to a candidate to support a cause or buy influence, there are incentives to give early to an incumbent and to wait before wasting one’s money on an untested challenger. Only when one clinches the nomination, as Mr Romney did six weeks ago, does a candidate’s potential money come undammed. The Obama campaign has been burning its campaign funds to run ads “defining” Mr Romney to voters as a heartless billionaire before he has the money to define himself.

It is a sobering thought that so much of this money, which will reach into the billions, will be invested in nasty ads. A Romney spokeswoman described some of the rhetoric of the Obama campaign as “unseemly and disgusting”, but Mr Romney himself pursued a scorched-earth strategy against his primary rivals. A number of sophisticated academic studies have aimed to show that such campaign adverts do little to change voters’ minds – but political consultants emphatically disagree.

The problem with money in politics, though, is less that it influences voters than that it influences politicians. They spend their time with people who are insulated from the difficulties of the moment and interested only in buying advantage. When Mr Obama criticised Mr Romney’s work at a Boston venture capital firm, the mayor of Newark, Corey Booker, who is usually an Obama ally, assailed the remarks as “nauseating”.

Maybe Mr Obama’s remarks were cynical or excessive or untrue – but nauseating? Mr Booker was reacting as if his family had been attacked, which, in a sense, it had. When Mr Obama said last month that “the private sector is doing fine”, it is possible that he meant the part of the private sector that, in the run-up to an election, a politician meets night after night after night.

The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard

Get alerts on Columnists when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article