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The Buying of the President 2012: Meet the Super-PAC Mega-Donors

The more we learn about Super PACs, the uglier the picture gets.

A new analysis by USA Today found that just five super-wealthy individuals have contributed 25 percent of the money raised by Super PACs since the beginning of 2011. The New York Times added that “two dozen individuals, couples or corporations have given $1 million or more to Republican super PACs this year…. Collectively, their contributions have totaled more than $50 million this cycle, making them easily the most influential and powerful political donors in politics today.”

The hierarchy is topped by Texas businessman Harold Simmons, a major funder of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in 2004, who has donated nearly $15 million to three different GOP candidates (Perry, Gingrich and Romney) and the Karl Rove–founded American Crossroads. He’s followed by Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who’s given $10 million to Gingrich’s Super PAC and says he may give an additional "$10 or $100 million to Gingrich” before the primary season is over. “Take away Sheldon Adelson and the pro-Gingrich ‘Winning Our Future’ PAC is just a federally registered lemonade stand,” Stephen Colbert joked.

While Gingrich is wholly dependent on Adelson, Rick Santorum’s Super PAC raised the bulk of its money in January from just two individuals, Wyoming billionaire Foster Freiss and Louisiana energy executive William Dore. Even insurgent candidates must be propped up by billionaires nowadays to stay competitive. In contrast, the Super PAC of erstwhile front-runner Mitt Romney raised $5 million last month from twenty-five donors. That’s a diversified portfolio compared to Santorum and Gingrich. Virtually all of the money contributed to these Super PACs came from $25,000 checks or higher. The Super-PAC era gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “the buying of the president."

A recent report from Demos and US PIRG found that 196 people have contributed nearly 80 percent of the individual donations to Super PACs in 2010 and 2011 by giving $100,000 or more each, for a total of $79 million. That’s 43 percent of the $181 million total raised by Super PACs during this period (the rest comes from businesses, unions and other PACs). Demos and US PIRG provided me with the names of these donors and which Super PACs they gave money to. Click here to see the document (pdf). They are the .000063 percent of the electorate who will shape the 2012 campaign on both sides of the aisle.

“I’m against very wealthy people attempting to or influencing elections,” Adelson told Forbes this week. “But as long as it’s doable, I’m going to do it.” That’s the best argument yet for overturning the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

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