Obama vs. Romney Polls: Why Campaign Finances May Not Matter in the Election

$12.5 million.

That was Barack Obama's fundraising lead over and above Mitt Romney's $116 million raised in August. As per usual with campaigns, "special interests" are decried, with everyone forgetting that a "special interest" could mean anything from a bank to PETA to the state of Illinois.

Setting the drama aside, let's look at how much has been raised, where it came from, and what this might mean for the election.

Right now, Obama has both raised and spent more than Romney. The president has raised $348,413,128 according to OpenSecrets.org. His Republican challenger has raised $193,373,762. Large individual contributions comprise a majority of campaign gifts for each candidate.

This is fairly standard for presidential campaigns, but it's a change for Obama. During his 2008 campaign, only 43% of contributions to Obama were over $1,000. Now, well over half of the contributions are that large.

While Romney's list of top five donors includes many financial institutions like JP Morgan (as one might suspect from his business past), Obama's list includes more donors from the education industry. The top industry for both was "retired," which is consistent with the fact that an older demographic has accrued more wealth to invest in politics. Lawyers were also top contributors to both campaigns. Obama's list included two universities — the University of California and Harvard University. Historically, the two American teachers’ unions have given almost their entire campaign budget to whoever the Democratic candidate was at the time.

"What about Citizens United?" you may be thinking.

The ruling that allowed corporations to be treated as individuals for the purposes of fundraising has conjured up images of a sort of dystopia, where a present-day Vanderbilt or Carnegie just writes a check to decide who will be president. The actual results of the ruling are much more gradual, because donors could contribute too many borderline campaigning purposes even before the ruling. The prediction is that, over time, the political parties themselves will start to hold less sway as donors no longer feel the need for the middle man. 

If you go all the way back to spring 2011, there was much Democratic hand-wringing that the Republicans would tap a "tsunami of money" which they have at their disposal. As it turned out, there was plenty of "big money" to go around.

Campaign financing is always a sensitive subject. Candidates are reluctant to look like they are blowing money during hard times. You could spend countless hours drawing ties between real or imagined influence donors have on elected officials once in office.

One useful guideline to keep in mind: everyone is a special interest.

Back in the day, the Founders called this the problem of faction. Some individuals might vote for Obama because they believe he will forgive all student debt. Some might vote against him because they dislike his healthcare plan.

Either way, political campaigns — and the fundraising they necessitate — are a vital part of the federal process.