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.
campaign contributions didn’t stop there — not even
close. 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
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 Hijacking
American Politics" (PublicAffairs, 320 pp, $27.99).
the course of his investigations Vogel, who writes about
campaign funding for Politico, dogged the Koch brothers’
retreats for donors and politicians, got scolded by
Rove, and was thrown out of funders’ meetings by
threatening security agents. He spoke to us by phone
from Politico’s offices in Arlington, Va.
These donors gave $7 billion, and nothing much changed.
President Obama was re-elected, the balance of power in
the Senate and the House remained the same. Do you think
they’ll be discouraged by the low return on
I think a lot of folks treat this almost like a hobby.
Like Steve Ballmer from Microsoft who just bought the
L.A. Clippers — if you have enough money to pay $2
billion for a sports team, you’re probably doing
pretty well and not super concerned about making money
off the team. You think ‘Hey, I made all this money at
Microsoft. I bet that my instincts and business savvy
will apply to running a team.’ If you’re a sports
junkie, wouldn’t it be cool to tell the GM to draft
this player, or the coach to run more plays for that
player? It’s similar with the megadonors.
folks (megadonors) 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 to do the kind of
campaigning Santorum and Friess did, 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 (cultivating donors), 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
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.
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 than your idea of the
On the conservative side, in addition to Friess, there
are the Koch brothers — who come across in your book
as having distinct personalities.
There are actually four Koch brothers, and all of them
have very distinct personalities. We think of them as
just Charles and David ... because they’re the most
politically active and give the most money to politics.
Even there, there’s definite variance between the two.
Charles Koch is more of the Libertarian crusader. In
some ways he’s motivating this increased spending
(outside the system) 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.
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!’ That was interesting and
frank and candid … He would favor defense cuts. He
would even potentially be open to tax cuts. 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.
How did you wind up making campaign finance your beat?
My first job in journalism was covering general
assignment for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester,
Conn., and one of the coolest assignments I had was
covering the Hartford County Sheriff’s Office. It was
a scandal-plagued office that had a number of campaign
finance investigations — the campaigns for Hartford
County sheriff were notoriously controversial in the way
that money was raised and spent. Any political story
that you cover, there’s always a money angle. I
naturally gravitated toward it to the point that it
became my beat.
More than once you stationed yourself in hotel lobbies
and other semi-public parts of private funder meetings
to watch and listen. But if they found you out, you were
shown the door. Won’t people recognize you after this
I think I was already toward the end of the window;
people already recognized me. A combination of having
done a lot of this stuff before, as well as doing TV and
being generally recognizable — although more
recognizable to people who take an active and acute
interest in this … I don’t want to say the jig is
up, because I’m hoping there will still be ways to
cover this type of stuff and get inside, but it’s
becoming increasingly harder.
In the book you describe a weekend in Indian Wells,
Calif., at a hotel where the Koch brothers’ retreat
overlapped with the Stagecoach Country Music Festival.
It was the epitome of country cool. The cowboy hats, the
bikinis, the light beers, throwing the football around
in the pool. The septuagenarian and octogenarian
all-white male industrialist, sportcoat-clad (Koch)
crowd looked askance at this spectacle. There was no
confusion as to who was with which crew. It was the
first and only time I’ve ever gotten into one of those
conferences. They couldn’t rent out the whole hotel
because of Stagecoach.