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Talking 'Big Money' with Kenneth P. Vogel

Kenneth P. Vogel, author of

Kenneth P. Vogel, author of "Big Money" (PublicAffairs, June 2014). Photo Credit: Tisara Photography / Steven Halperson

In the 2012 election, 5,667,658 small donors contributed to the Barack Obama and Mitt Romney campaigns, giving $370 million. But another $470 million came from just 100 people. That's a phenomenal imbalance.

The campaign contributions didn't stop there. A total of $7 billion was spent on all races in the 2012 election by the candidates, parties and outside groups, with outside groups outspending the Republicans and Democrats for the first time ever. Enabled by the Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case, megadonors can now make political contributions in unlimited amounts, which they are doing with increasing secrecy.

Kenneth P. Vogel digs into the stories behind those numbers -- the rivalries between Karl Rove and the Koch brothers, how Obama went from campaign finance reformer to big-money raiser -- in his revealing new book, "Big Money: 2.5 Billion Dollars, One Suspicious Vehicle, and a Pimp -- on the Trail of the Ultra-rich Hijacking American Politics" (PublicAffairs, $27.99).

He spoke by phone from Politico's offices in Arlington, Va.


Donors gave $7 billion in the last elections, and nothing much changed. President Obama was re-elected, the balance of power in the Senate and the House remained the same. Will they be discouraged by the low return on investment?

These folks have all this money, and they're doing something they believe in. If they win, great; if they don't win, they had fun doing it. Foster Friess got to ride around in Rick Santorum's truck during the Iowa caucuses, going to all 99 counties, doing town halls at pizza places. He loved it. It's like political fantasy camp. For him, to spend $2 million on a "super PAC" that supported Rick Santorum, that helped Santorum win the Iowa caucuses -- a shocking result that not many people predicted -- to have the front-row seat for that is probably more than worth it.

With billions of dollars to spend on television ads, will candidates even bother visiting pizza parlors across Iowa?

I think you need the big money to get in the game, but once you're in the game you still need to do the retail politics. And you still need to have a compelling message. Mitt Romney had all the money and he was so good at , but so deficient in delivering the message and connecting with people. There's only so far the money will take you.

How do you make campaign finance interesting for general readers?

It's certainly a wonky subject, one that is easy to ignore. It's these gigantic numbers, nasty ads and conniving robber-baron donor archetypes. But the goal was to present a much more nuanced reality, and to show the motivations of all the players involved.

On the Democratic side there are two rising young donors playing an increasing role in Democratic politics -- the Mostyns, Steve and Amber. They're self-made Houston trial lawyers; if they're not billionaires, they're getting pretty close. They're young, in their 40s, and they like to hang out and drink and party, something different from your idea of the traditional megadonor.

On the conservative side, in addition to Friess, there are the Koch brothers -- who come across in your book as having distinct personalities.

Charles Koch is more of the Libertarian crusader. In some ways he's motivating this increased spending that has benefited the Republican party, but he kind of has no patience for either party. Whereas, David Koch seems to enjoy the social side of politics. He was a delegate to the Republican National Convention in Tampa and hosts fundraisers at his estate in the Hamptons.

While David is becoming increasingly Republican, he also has these Libertarian instincts. I had a chance to chat with him at the Republican National Convention and ask him about some of these places where he seems to be outside the lines of the party, and he didn't back away at all. He said, "I favor gay marriage." I said, "What about Mitt Romney, the candidate you're here to support? He doesn't favor gay marriage." He said, "I disagree with him!"... It was interesting to watch the people around him as he's sharing his heartfelt views: They're kind of cringing, because they're Republicans and would prefer he hew to the party line.

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