President Obama and Mitt Romney raised about $1 billion each and relied on outside groups that spent another billion on the presidential race, mounting a stimulus for political consultants and broadcasters everywhere and obliterating a decades-old system that provided taxpayer funds to candidates in exchange for keeping spending low.
Mr. Obama raised more than $1.1 billion, and Mr. Romney raised $931 million as of the latest disclosures, which mostly cover the period through Oct. 17, with each side incessantly claiming it was being outraised and urgently begging for support, nuclear arms-race style, to remedy the situation.
Mr. Romney had to devote some of his funding to fighting off primary challengers, and, for a campaign that centered on fiscal prudence, his campaign and allies spent remarkably inefficiently on advertising.
In the end, though, each campaign had all the money it could spend or more, and while previous years’ candidates had to make hard choices as cash dwindled about which areas to pull out of, the Romney campaign actually entered additional states because of a different problem: There wasn’t enough airtime left on battleground-state TV stations to satisfy all the political groups that wanted it.
It was the first time both candidates rejected public financing in favor of relentless fundraising events and mail pleas, and the magnitude of returns on those efforts made it very likely that no future major-party candidate will accept the taxpayer funds. Under the current public-finance system, which was designed to reduce influence-peddling, accepting public money would limit the candidate’s spending to $147 million, less than one-sixth of Mr. Romney’s budget, the smaller of the two.
Ironically, one of the only candidates to accept taxpayer funds this year was the Libertarian nominee, Gary E. Johnson.
The growth of big money in politics wasn’t limited to the presidential race. Even before final contribution reports have been filed, House candidates surpassed their haul for the 2010 cycle, raising $1.2 billion, twice what it was a decade ago.
In all, federal candidates raised $4.1 billion by Oct. 17, for an election-season price tag of some $6 billion when outside groups are also included.
But money raised by the candidates also meant less than ever before. This was the first presidential election since a series of 2010 court rulings that said unions, corporations and individuals could give unlimited amounts to “independent” groups that could run ads so long as they didn’t formally coordinate with the candidates.
Three men and their families and companies — Sheldon Adelson, Bob Perry and Harold Simmons — gave $110 million to such outfits, more than 10 percent of what Mr. Obama raised from 4 million Americans.
Democrats feared the ruling would give a vast advantage to Republicans, and though that turned out to be true, it also largely powered tea-party discontent with moderate Republicans, by doing away with incumbents’ cash advantage, a barrier that had historically been nearly insurmountable. The resulting primary fights, especially in the Senate, cost a number of more-moderate Republicans their seats.
The provision that allowed corporate donations, meanwhile, was hardly ever employed by actual big corporations, who feared backlash from stockholders and customers. One of the notable exceptions was a $2.5 million donation from oil giant Chevron to a super PAC supporting House Republicans.
Instead, the allowance for companies was used by limited-liability corporations that sprouted up overnight, registered in privacy-friendly states such as Delaware, to function as fronts to shield the identities of wealthy individuals who wanted to influence elections but weren’t willing to put their names on the line.
The largest “corporate” donation to date came from a firm called the Specialty Group, which gave $5.3 million to a conservative group in October after forming just weeks before, listing the private home of a Tennessee lawyer with a nonworking phone number as its office. There is no indication it has ever operated any kind of business that provides conventional goods or services.
In the general election, the envelope was pushed further, with super PACs giving way to something more radical.
Nonprofits that do not disclose their donors, from mainstays such as the Chamber of Commerce to new ideological groups such as Crossroads GPS, spent $300 million on political ads, employing a controversial reading of the tax code to enjoy the freedom provided to super PACs while avoiding the transparency that’s required of those overtly political groups.
The new groups usually had ties to old D.C. hands, and Crossroads GPS and its sister super PAC spent $150 million, making it by far the biggest noncandidate spender of the election.