Whoever wins the United States presidential election next month one thing is for certain: the race will have been the most costly in American history, a dubious milestone in any democracy.
OpenSecrets.org, which tracks money in US politics by analysing monthly donor reports to the Federal Election Commission, expects the total cost will surpass US$2.5 billion ($3.05 billion).
Bob Biersack, senior fellow with the Centre for Responsive Politics, which runs Open Secrets, said: "We're looking at $2.8 billion, maybe $3 billion. And that's just the presidential campaign." If you add the congressional races, Open Secrets predicts a $6 billion total.
Should we be worried?
Although President Barack Obama has had success reviving his 2008 strategy, marshalling a vast network of small donors, this unprecedented development is also driven by the landmark 2010 Supreme Court ruling that relaxed campaign fundraising regulations in place for a century.
The Citizens United v Federal Election Commission decision axed barriers to corporate, union or individual donations made via SuperPACs, shadowy political action committees that act as surrogates, ostensibly separate from official campaigns, for rich donors.
As SuperPACs vacuum up secret donations fears are growing that the ultra-rich will exert ever more influence, concentrating power and effectively disenfranchising ordinary voters [under US law the maximum direct donation to a candidate is US$5000]. This political inequality mirrors the schism between rich and poor, as the recession hollows out the middle class amid a dramatic upward distribution of income - a trickle-up economy - that has eroded the American Dream.
"There is so much more concentration of wealth in a much smaller number of hands, and those entities, whether people or organisations, can bring that capital to bear on the political process," says Biersack.
Back in 2008, Obama talked up campaign finance reform. But a partisan Congress makes change unlikely.
In August a Pew Research Centre poll, "Fewer, Poorer, Gloomier: The Lost Decade of the Middle Class," pointed to growing inequalities. In 1983, the ratio of the wealth of upper-income families to the wealth of lower-income families was 28-to-1. In 2010 it was 57-to-1. The average male worker earns the same, adjusted for inflation, as he did in 1978. And while Romney claimed in the first debate that Obama had "crushed" the middle class, for 90 per cent of Americans income has flatlined for a generation. This theme is explored by Hedrick Smith in Who Stole the American Dream?, which surveys the effects of four decades of neoliberal economic policies. Speaking on PBS Newshour, Smith said although productivity had grown 80 per cent since 1973, the average wage had risen only 10 per cent and "the income of the people at the top 1 per cent has grown 600 per cent."
That money is flowing into the presidential contest as never before. Support for Romney flows from four SuperPACs. Wall St banks are solid for Romney and he has support from the energy and mining sectors, agribusiness, construction, real estate and insurance. The top Romney donor is casino mogul Sheldon Adelson. Mining magnates Charles and David Koch are in the Romney camp, as is Leon Cooperman.
The machine Obama built in 2008 to leverage small donations from multiple donors remains a moneymaker. By September, 34 per cent of Obama's war chest, US$147 million, came from those paying under US$200, as against 18 per cent of Romney's total. Obama is also courting deeper pockets. Corporate money flows from Hollywood and Silicon Valley. Billionaire New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Hollywood tycoon Jeffrey Katzenberg are Obama fans.
Throwing money at candidates is no guarantee of success. But donors driven by the bottom line usually want something in return.
Would Romney block efforts to regulate Wall St, via the Dobbs-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, or resist cuts to carbon emissions to fight climate change? Would Obama share Hollywood's concerns about copyright theft?
As money flowed to Romney liberals worried Obama would be outspent.
A New Yorker piece, "Schmooze or Lose," asked if the President's reluctance to "cosy up to billionaires" might cost him the election. The most recent FEC returns, with the President at US$432 million in total to Romney's US$279 million, steadied liberal nerve. But if Obama wins it is far from sure if he can halt the drain of political power from his fellow citizens to a rich elite.