Quick Election 2012 quiz:
How many electoral votes does the United Kingdom have? What about China?
Silly questions, perhaps. We all know that the foreign countries do not have a say in the outcome of our elections. But if that is the case, then why are the campaigns for both presidential candidates casting their fundraising nets beyond domestic waters?
In this super PAC dominated, post-public financing political fundraising scene, candidates intensely pursue every possible dollar in order to keep pace with each other. In recent years, that has increasingly meant turning to oversees sources, even as candidates trade accusations of outsourcing in their larger economic platforms. As such, increasing attention has been paid to the estimated three to four million private American civilians, plus military personnel, currently living abroad. Rudy Giuliani became the first politician to actively seek funds from such a demographic, and by the end of the 2008 presidential elections the candidates combined for an approximate total of $6.9 million raised from abroad.
This time around appears to be no different. Indeed, considering the astounding pace with which Mitt Romney has secured donations from massive donors, that 2008 total will likely be surpassed handily in the coming months. Last Wednesday, the Obama campaign hosted a $750 per person fundraiser at a Shanghai hotel with former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig. Romney himself will be making his second trip to England later this month, this time combining watching his dressage horse compete at the London Olympic Games with a $25,000 per plate dinner with supporters. In August, George Clooney will host an Obama fundraiser in Geneva, while Romney’s sons recently attended a campaign event for their father in Hong Kong. The list goes on.
So what are we, as informed voters, to make of all this?
Firstly, foreign fundraising is a game both sides are playing. For all the criticism Romney has received about possessing off-shore bank accounts, Obama has outraised him almost 3:1 from “off-shore donors" (although I suspect this might be as indicative of how the world at large views our two major political parties as it is a result of actual fundraising efforts). Both campaigns have more events planned overseas in the near future.
Secondly, most (70%) of this money is coming from Europe. And no need to beat the absurd paranoia drums of Obama being secretly financed through his secret Kenya homeland; less than 1% is from Africa. As other cities around the world draw international business, more Americans with money to donate settle abroad.
Finally, it is worth emphasizing that only American citizens and green card holders are eligible to contribute to campaigns. The Federal Elections Commission has reminded both candidates that donations from anyone failing to meet those criteria must not be accepted, and both campaigns have affirmed their commitment to accept money from only legitimate sources. However, it might not be that simple. While campaigns can ensure that the names signing the checks they receive are legitimate American citizens or green card holders, determining whether all the money in the check is American is decidedly more problematic. Even if all the money “belongs” to the American writing the check, in all probability it was money made conducting business abroad with no explicit, if any, domestic benefit. Such criticism seems especially poignant in light of the billions of dollars casino mogul Sheldon Adelson has made off of legally questionable overseas investments, which he subsequently donated to various conservative candidates and causes.
As disturbing as such allegations are, the issue of fundraising abroad is symptomatic of the larger campaign finance crisis we face in the wake of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision. With the potential for unlimited amounts of money being spent to influence elections, no candidate or party can afford not to aggressively pursue donations wherever in the world they might be found.