by Jon Guze
Senior Fellow, Legal Studies, John Locke Foundation
In a recent post at BloombergView, Megan McArdle draws our attention to a New York Times summary of campaign fundraising that seems to contradict the conventional narative regarding the supposedly decisive, and insidious, role of money in politics:
Hillary Clinton has done well in both traditional and PAC fundraising, but that might be effect as much as cause: The obvious front-runner and already-crowned establishment candidate is going to do well in fundraising, even if the money isn’t needed. So let’s look at the Republican race.
By June, Jeb Bush was the GOP PACman; he had raised more than $100 million, and spent over $10 million of it. Second in such fundraising is Ted Cruz, who raised $38.4 million in outside money. The two of them together have 60 percent more cash than all the other candidates combined. They are currently tied for fourth place in polling.
Meanwhile, Scott Walker, who used to be running third in the PAC race, has already dropped out, as have Rick Perry and his $13.8 million worth of outside funds. Marco Rubio, with a comparatively dainty $17.3 million, is doing better than the three early leaders in outside fundraising — and yet he’s still being blown away in polling by Donald Trump and Ben Carson, who have raised, to a first approximation, zero in outside funds.
As Paul Blumenthal, Sam Stein and Scott Conroy write at the Huffington Post: “According to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission, outside groups — super PACs and political ‘nonprofits’ — have already poured in more than $33 million to promote Republican candidates in the primary campaign through mass communication like television, radio, online advertising, direct mail and phone-banking. … Meanwhile, two candidates whose most significant source of outside help has been free media attention — Trump and Carson — have consistently remained the top two candidates in both national and statewide polls.”
Where are all those shadowy billionaires we were warned out? The ones subverting American democracy with their ill-gotten lucre? The lucre is being spent, in vast amounts. But $200 million in PAC funds is no match for a billionaire openly campaigning to get a hold on the levers of political power, and a neurosurgeon on book tour. No wonder Larry Lessig’s single-issue campaign to get money out of politics isn’t going anywhere.
How are Trump and Carson doing it? It’s that free media. While campaign ads may work (campaigns are certainly convinced that they do), they’re no match for getting your face on the nightly newscast. People tune out advertising, even when they haven’t gotten up to get a snack or go to the bathroom. It’s much better to have your candidate talked about on the program itself. And boy, we’ve certainly been talking about Donald Trump….
The establishment candidates — which is to say, the ones tapped into longstanding networks of advisers, donors and campaign staff — are the ones who are doing best on the PAC front … and nonetheless taking a beating at the polls….
Rick Perry had plenty of PAC money, but he still had to drop out because that money couldn’t be used to pay his campaign staff. Even looking at the campaigns that still have plenty of ordinary contributions, it’s hard to tease out any relationship between outside funds and doing well at the polls. If money mattered as much as those who excoriate the Citizens United decision seem to believe, Jeb Bush should be walking away with this election. Instead, he’s already starting to look like an also-ran.
Meanwhile, we should also count the cost of some of those campaign reforms: They’ve helped sideline the political parties’ establishment leadership, and helped create the current partisan gridlock that so many people lament. People keep asking why John Boehner can’t control his caucus, even though the answer is obvious: He has neither carrots nor sticks with which to keep them in line. He can’t use earmarks to give anything, and he can’t take anything away, because parties no longer control either ballot access or fundraising the way they once did. What’s left? Jawboning them about the good of the party, which he has tried, endlessly, with little success. At this point, both the Democratic and Republican parties look more like heritage brands than the powerful institutions they used to be.
One by one, we’ve stripped away the means that parties used to control their membership: replaced party bosses with primary elections, limited the ability of big donors to directly fund and influence campaigns, cracked down on earmarks and other pork-barrel policies, torn down the congressional institutional structures that used to let a few powerful politicians essentially control what bills made it to a vote. Each step was hailed as a progressive move toward a more flourishing democracy, and perhaps they were. But the more perfect our democracy gets, the more it seems to tend towards chaos. Witness the astonishing longevity of Trump as an electoral force.
So far this election season, the good news seems to be that all that outside, unregulated money isn’t nearly as powerful as people thought. Oddly, that may also be the bad news.