WASHINGTON -- Republican donor Sheldon Adelson needed just a few hours to earn enough money to dramatically alter the course of the Republican presidential election, a powerful example of the asymmetry between the cost of campaigns and the wealth of the richest of the rich.
Casino mogul Adelson, one of the richest men in the world, threw the race into chaos by injecting $5 million into a super PAC backing Newt Gingrich. Mitt Romney appeared to have clinched a cakewalk to the GOP nomination with a strong finish in the Iowa caucuses and a resounding win in New Hampshire. But the Adelson-funded PAC blasted away at Romney in South Carolina, where Gingrich vaulted from behind to secure a surprise victory. Adelson's wife, Miriam Ochsorn, followed her husband's donation with a $6 million infusion, keeping Gingrich going through Florida, Nevada and beyond.
In 2011 alone, Adelson made $7 billion, according to Forbes. That translates to about $134.6 million a week, or $19.2 million a day, assuming a 7-day work week. Assuming a 40-hour work week, Adelson reaped $3.3 million an hour. At that rate, it would take him less than two hours to make the $5 million needed to alter the race.
His family's total $11 million Gingrich payout is equivalent to less than a half-day's work. Assuming a grueling 70-hour average work week, Adelson made $1.9 million per hour, making the $11 million donation equivalent to about 6 hours of work.
Adelson met with Gingrich this past week at The Venetian in Las Vegas to discuss the former House speaker's electoral strategy over the coming months, and has publicly praised his main rival, GOP frontrunner Romney. The meeting at Adelson's hotel and casino lasted several hours, according to news reports -- enough time for him to earn an amount that would fund the Gingrich campaign to the convention.
As Forbes reported, Adelson became the 8th-richest American in 2011, after scoring $7 billion over the course of the year, predominantly through gains on his stock ownership of Las Vegas Sands Corp. Adelson's company operates dozens of resorts and casinos all over the world, and the 78-year-old's total personal net worth is about $21.5 billion. His company's stock took a beating during the early months of the recession, but has surged in recent years on strong profits from Asia, particularly China. Gingrich routinely invokes political talking points about the United States losing competitive edges to China, a tactic being repeated with xenophobic gusto in congressional races.
The U.S. median household income in 2010 was $49,455 -- a combined $23.77 an hour for all earners in a household, given a 40-hour work week. Among single men, the median income was $35,627, or $17.12 per hour. For single women: $25,456, or $12.24 an hour.
Adelson's money has fueled a host of attack ads and short films on behalf of Gingrich, many of which have criticized Romney as an out-of-touch member of the financial elite.
Romney, one of the wealthiest Americans, earned over $20 million last year without holding a job -- an amount roughly equivalent to the annual payout for a too-big-to-fail bank CEO. But even Romney's $200 million fortune pales in comparison with Adelson's. Both can spend tremendous sums by political standards without altering their lifestyles.
As U.S. spending habits go, politics is generally a low-priority indulgence, with purchases of trinkets and junk food far outpacing political ad-buys and campaign contributions. As a result, purchasing elections can be a part-time hobby for the super-rich with little to no effect on their total fortune.
Adelson's impact on the 2012 Republican contest will be marked, even if his current preferred candidate -- Gingrich -- fails to secure the nomination. As HuffPost and The New York Times have reported, Adelson appears open to pledging financial support to Romney should he win the GOP nomination.