Follow the money…
A recent study found that a dozen “mega donors” contributed one in every 13 Dollars raised by political campaigns since 2009. The study was undertaken in an effort to determine whether and how the role of the super rich had grown following the loosening of restrictions on political spending by the U.S. Supreme Court more than a decade ago.
The growing influence of multimillion-dollar megadonors has been accompanied by another, competing trend: a surge of small online donations to politicians of both parties. Those contributions — in $5, $10 and $25 increments — have given Democrats and Republicans an alternate source of money beyond the super rich.
Still, the study found that the top 100 ZIP codes for political giving in the United States, which hold less than 1 percent of the total population, accounted for roughly 20 percent of the $45 billion that federal candidates and political groups raised between January 2009 and December 2020. The study used data from the Center for Responsive Politics, which compiles figures from the Federal Election Commission.
The study didn’t include state-level contributions, so the picture that emerged is incomplete, but the overall message is clear enough: money matters disproportionately in American politics.
The amount of money at a candidate’s disposal isn’t necessarily dispositive; as a a friend who used to be a political strategist has always maintained, a good candidate with a good message who raises at least enough money to get that message out can defeat an opponent with a much larger campaign war-chest. But anyone who dismisses the significance of campaign funding is delusional.
That said, trying to get a handle on campaign finance is a fraught exercise, and many seemingly good ideas end up generating unanticipated–and negative–consequences.
Take the reforms that have focused on limiting candidate spending. It sounds fair, but imposing uniform limits tend to work in favor of incumbents, because most Incumbents begin the election cycle with high name recognition. Challengers need to build that recognition (which is one reason why celebrities with no government experience have a leg up in such contests). Once a non-famous challenger spends enough to build that name recognition, campaign spending limits kick in. Typically, that’s the point at which the incumbent is just beginning to spend. In other words, just as a challenger starts to become competitive, spending limits choke off political competition.
So what would effective, workable reform look like? Previous efforts–caps on contribution amounts, reporting requirements and the like–have been circumvented by canny lawyers. The hope that small donations facilitated by the Internet would be a countervailing force has dimmed, as it has become apparent that it is easier for fringe candidates to generate those funds from equally fringe voters (evidently, Marjorie Taylor Greene has taken in very substantial amounts). It would be great if we could set time limits for campaigning, but that would probably help incumbents as well–and in any event, run afoul of the First Amendment.
Given the rules as they exist, the only counter to the influence of money in American politics is the franchise–and the multitude of civic and political organizations that are working to expand voter turnout. As we approach the 2022 midterms, Republicans are working furiously to counter those efforts, and as I have noted in previous posts, the GOP goes into each election cycle with a number of structural and financial advantages, not to mention a media ecosystem supporting–nay, trumpeting– their messaging. (And no, MSNBC tilts left but is absolutely not a counterweight to Fox, et al. Accusations to the contrary are assertions of a false equivalency.)
Democratic systems are supposed to reflect the will of the people. Political actors who enjoy enough resources and structural advantages can and do ignore and subvert that will. How we even the playing field, how we facilitate “fair fights” and prevent donations from drowning out the voice of the public is by no means clear.
But at the end of the day, money really does make the political world go around….and we need to figure out a way to lessen its impact.