There's a lot of hand-wringing these days -- as there should be -- over the millions being spent in the Presidential nominating contest by so-called Super PACs, some of which are funded almost entirely by one or two very wealthy individuals.
But I would argue that, to a large extent, this phenomenon is a response to something else that's happening -- it's an attempt to fill in the gap left by the lack of money in the Presidential nominating contest.
By my rough count, the Republican Presidential candidates have raised a combined total of around $170 million for their campaign committees this cycle, through the end of January 2012. Four years ago, that figure was around $270 million. That's just counting contributions, and not, most notably, the tens of millions Romney pumped into his 2008 campaign.
That's an amazing drop. It's meant that the remaining candidates simply don't have the dough to seriously compete; so, they've been forced to ask for help from their very wealthy supporters, via the Super PACs.
Some may argue that it's the other way around -- that the very wealthy benefactors are prefering to write huge checks rather than spend their time fundraising from their friends and associates. I think that is true in a few cases, particularly with some of Romney's contributors, but that's a minor factor at best.
Let's start with Romney. Taking out his self-funding, he has received $63.2 million in contributions this cycle -- almost dollar-for-dollar identical to the $63.5 million at the same point in 2008. As I wrote a few months ago, this is largely due to a stunning desertion rate from his $2000+ 2008 donors. That hasn't changed much since I wrote that piece; I'll have updated numbers soon, but he's still gotten the cold shoulder from a large majority of his '08 givers. (Also worth noting: donors can max out at $2500 for the primary this cycle, up from $2300 -- given the percent of Romney's money that comes from max-out donors, this alone should have been worth a couple million extra.)
Meanwhile, it's not as if Romney's making huge headway with the folks who had, by this point, coughed up over $100 million to McCain and Giuliani. Romney's campaign originally hoped to report $50 million in contributions in their first quarterly report; even if we take that as overly optimistic on their part, he should, as huge frontrunner, be way, way ahead of where he is now.
The result, even running a much sleeker (and later-starting) campaign, is a campaign that needed to tap into either Romney's personal wealth, or the Super PAC -- both of which were supposed to be held primarily for the general election.
Ron Paul, similarly, has raised almost exactly the same amount as he did last time: $29.9 million compared with $32.6m through January 2008. That's despite a much higher-profile -- and more successful -- start to the campaign this time. Paul ended January with $1.6 million in his account; he had $6 million banked at the same time in 2008.
And those are the relative success stories. Rick Santorum has raised just $6.6 million in the entire 2012 cycle -- two-thirds of it in the month of January. That's still shy of the $7.2 million raised by Michele Bachmann, let alone the $16.4 million Mike Huckabee had raised by the same point in 2008. Gingrich raised $18.3 million, but much of that was raised and spent long ago; he ended January with about $1.7 million on hand.
Let's put it in spending terms. Romney spent far more in January 2012 than he did in January 2008 -- $18.7 million, up from $10.3 million. Paul spent a little less -- $5.2 million, from $6.4 million.
The rest of the field spent peanuts -- about $13 million, total. Close to half of that came from Gingrich; the rest was a Santorum-Perry split, plus a pittance from Huntsman and Bachmann. In January 2008, the candidates aside from Romney and Paul spent twice as much: $25 million.
What I'm getting at is that the candidates spent, and are spending, as much as they can. I don't think any of them have decided to forego regular fundraising on the assumption that they could talk their billionaire buddy into writing another big check. I think they have all come up sadly short on fundraising, and have been rescued (to some extent) by those billionaire buddies.