Fordham Law

Certain N.Y. ZIP codes key to locking up political funds

Zephyr Teachout in USA Today, April 21, 2012

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New York's presidential primary will take place too late to influence who becomes the Republican nominee, but state residents are playing a significant role in bankrolling the campaigns of both major parties.

The contributions come directly to candidates' campaigns and to separate political action committees, called super PACs, that can receive unlimited cash.

Wealthy New Yorkers are playing a key role on both levels — as "bundlers" soliciting contributions on behalf of individual candidates, and as major donors to super PACs.

Bundlers frequently use swanky Manhattan residences or hotels to host events that can rake in as much as $1 million for a candidate in a single night.

"There's really two elections going on," said Daniel Newman, executive director of the non-partisan MapLight Foundation, which tracks the influence of money on politics. "There's the election we hear about going on with the voters in the primary. There's also the election going on with the campaign donors."

New Yorkers have contributed $22.3 million directly to presidential candidates this election cycle, according to the Federal Election Commission. People living in Manhattan ZIP codes beginning with 100 contributed over half of that: $11.8 million.

"The vast majority of Americans don't give any money to campaigns, and one ZIP code in Manhattan contributes huge amounts," said Adam Skaggs, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's School of Law. "The fact that wealthy donors play such as disproportionate role in financing our election is problematic in that the gridlock we see in Washington and the failure of Washington to deal with the root causes of the financial crisis are connected."

President Obama has received $11.2 million statewide while former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP nominee, has received $8.2 million.

Obama is focusing his town-hall-style public campaign events on battleground states while making periodic visits to Manhattan for private campaign fundraisers.

Those visits don't give the presidential candidates an accurate portrait of the state, said Zephyr Teachout, an associate professor at the Fordham University School of Law located at Lincoln Center in Manhattan.

"You have to move outside the half-mile radius around Central Park," Teachout said. "There's a premise there that the wealthiest New Yorkers are the state. What's so sad to me is that this was one of the kinds of concerns the founders were responding to in Britain — the sense that one could buy a seat in Parliament and that wealth could dictate the representatives' interests."

FEC data make clear the downstate center of gravity for political money in the state: Obama has raised $6.33 million from people living in Manhattan with five-digit ZIP codes beginning with 100, but only $58,706 from donors in the Buffalo metro area.

Likewise, Romney's donations include almost $4.5 million from Manhattan ZIP codes but only $24,750 from Buffalo metro-area donors.

Other GOP presidential candidates raised much smaller amounts around the state. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas topped that group at $834,265, followed by Texas Gov. Rick Perry at $458,750.

Paul, who will be on Tuesday's New York ballot, drew about 4,500 people Thursday night during a campaign stop at Cornell University in Ithaca.

Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, who was Romney's closest competitor for the GOP nomination, dropped out of the race earlier this month, removing the significance of Tuesday's presidential primary in New York.

Santorum and former House speaker Newt Gingrich also will be on Tuesday's ballot. Gingrich campaigned Friday in Buffalo.

Beyond donations to indivudal campaigns, New Yorkers also are big supporters of independent super PACs. According to the MapLight Foundation, New York ranked third among states in super PAC contributions between Jan. 1 and Feb. 29, with $9 million of the $78 million donated.

Nevada ranked No. 1 largely because of the millions of dollars contributed by Nevada residents Miriam and Sheldon Adelson to the super PAC supporting Gingrich. Since the campaign began, the Adelson family has given more than $16 million to the PAC.