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Money Can’t Buy Me Love

The 2016 presidential contest will put the lie, but probably not the kibosh, to the case for campaign finance regulation.  The contest’s results thus far—which, granted, is not very far—indicate what common sense says: money cannot protect candidates for whom citizens do not want to vote, nor are excessive sums necessary for those to whom the electorate is drawn. This is doubly true in an age where adequate means of communication are essentially free.

The same independent money on which rebel candidates like Eugene McCarthy once thrived is now sustaining the campaigns of several contenders, thus broadening the choices of voters.  It simply cannot sustain them against voters’ will, as Rick Perry and Scott Walker know.  Their fundraising topped $15 million and $26 million respectively, yet they were the first and second casualties of Donald Trump, who has “purchased” his slumping but still persistent lead by spending a paltry $1.4 million.

The dueling graphs of money raised and popularity registered are a study in statistical randomness.  As of the July 31 FEC reporting period, the last available figures—which will be updated at the end of the quarter this week—Jeb Bush was sitting on $120 million.  As of the last Real Clear Politics polling average, he was registering 9.2 percent support.  Ben Carson had drawn $10.8 million and was trouncing Bush at 17 percent.  Trump, who needs no one’s money, as he is wont to remind us, topped the field at 23.4 percent—less than his previous 35 percent, and probably on the way down to far less, but still an impressively stubborn lead whose erosion can hardly be attributed to fiscal anemia.

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The only place where money could be said to align with results would be mediocrity, which is to say that candidates who have raised middling amounts of money—Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz—are achieving middling results.  That holds except for those (Chris Christie, Rand Paul) who are raising middling sums and achieving pathetic results, thus proving that political analysis is complicated by the fact that voters think.

Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, boasts a cash haul of $67.8 million but is losing to Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire.  The reason—deep-insight alert—is a lack of enthusiasm for her candidacy.  By contrast, voters do—into this, no deep insight is offered or perceived—feel the Bern, to whom, incidentally, the best thing that could happen is a plutocratic Super PAC.

To be sure, the candidates have not, for the most part, yet unleashed these millions, though Clinton had, as of July 31, torched an astonishing $18.7 million.  And these GOP poll numbers, being national, do not account for the devilish details of Iowa and New Hampshire, where a ground game and therefore money will matter more.

Yet the poll numbers in those states are not dramatically different.  And the incapacity of money to account for the macrosorting of candidates at the national level is revealing.  The most important sorting events thus far have entailed no money and, in fact, have been filtered through the celestial prism of journalism: the televised debates.

The reason is not shocking to anyone with so much as an elementary-school understanding of American civics, which means very few elementary-school students in the era of Common Core, but I digress.  The elemental understanding, which escapes hand-wringing journalists, is this: Votes win elections.  Money does not.  There is not a precinct in America—insert jokes here, but actual corruption is both criminal and rare—that sets ballot boxes aside and counts contributions instead.

Money buys the means of persuading votes.  But it is only decisive if Americans are gullible in the aggregate, over time.  Journalists and reformers who would never impute such credulity to themselves or their peers are only to happy to assume it in those they view as their lessers, such as Kansan altruists with whom, with the genuine curiosity of one inspecting a biological specimen, they want to know what the matter is.

This is a strange populist brew.  Like many, it is made from elite hops.  As such, it is ultimately a solvent not of plutocracy but of self-government, for the latter cannot survive as the reformers’ ideal if the voters are as gullible as the reformers’ caricature.

Since money only buys the means of persuading votes, taking money from minority factions in exchange for backing policies that violate the interests of the very public one needs the money to persuade is inherently irrational.  A genuine bribe of that description would only be rational if—hypothetically and all—government did so many things that no one could reasonably be expected to take notice of them or, if someone did, he or she could not afford to spend the single vote everyone gets reacting to an instance of corruption on an ancillary issue.

Money thus helps only to the extent it achieves net persuasion, while it persuades only to the extent voters are receptive to the message candidates seek to convey.  Mountains of it have not achieved liftoff for Jeb Bush because, fairly or not, he has been painted with establishment tar, and even molehills of expenditures have been unnecessary to propel The Donald to the front of the GOP pack.

In the Republican field, there will, of course, be considerable sorting out.  In Madisonian fashion, passion will dissipate.  Voters will eventually realize that the winner gets to be in charge.  But money will not be responsible for it.  At best the sorting will be overdetermined, and money may well follow whomever can pull it off.

To be sure, communication is hardly the only function of campaign finance.  Ground games are immensely expensive.  Once the sorting out occurs, money will be a necessary condition for pushing on.  It should be.  Raising adequate money to fund a campaign is a reasonable test of a candidate’s support and skill.  There is no entitlement to success in politics.  Candidates who cannot, in the current regulatory environment, attract adequate funds probably ought not be in the race.  Those too sanctimonious to try are probably too self-righteous to govern.

In the last analysis, no candidate can plausibly emerge from the 2016 Presidential campaign complaining that he or she was unable adequately to communicate with voters.  The constitutional objections to campaign regulation are, of course, adequate to its defeat.  But the 2016 campaign is exposing its policy vacuities too.

Reader Discussion

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on September 28, 2015 at 19:33:35 pm

1. This is VERY cleverly stated.

2. So we can document the lack of correlation between a campaign's spending and a candidate's popularity. But the campaign's spending is not all the spending on a candidate's behalf. Maybe that's all the spending we care about, because that's all the spending that (some version of) campaign finance laws would govern, but to make a larger claim about the relationship between money and poll results, we'd also want to look at PAC expenditures.

3. Of course, there are a lot of dynamics at play. Should we expect fundraising to correlate with popularity? Candidates may call in their political financial favors early not as a show of strength, but as evidence of an urgent need to overcome weakness. Analogously, I might look at geographic blocks where the most human deaths occur, observe that they occur heavily in blocks that house Emergency Rooms, and conclude that Emergency Rooms are a bad place to go if you're deathly ill. In short, there may be a powerful correlation between the variables, but the causation may actually run in the opposite direction.

4. Finally, consider all kinds of special-interest legislation: Tax breaks for Arabian horses and the like. Can you explain that stuff in terms unrelated to the size of the financial interests involved?

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nobody.really
on September 28, 2015 at 20:37:55 pm

5. Why would politicians spend so much time and effort soliciting donations if they don't effect electoral outcomes?

6. Why would former politicians advocate for campaign finance reforms? (Are there former politicians who oppose campaign fiance reforms?)

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nobody.really
on September 28, 2015 at 20:59:02 pm

(Are there former politicians who oppose campaign fiance reforms?)

Heck, I was going to say yes, but none spring to mind!

I suspect that you would agree that there should be at least one - maybe some libertarian fellow - and i am OK with that even if he lost the last election!

BTW: good comments 1-4! As for #5, we may find that a larger / more significant component of electoral success is the *free* media presentation that a certain class of politician is afforded. Thus, the problem with any *real* campaign finance reform.

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gabe
on September 29, 2015 at 08:13:29 am

Nobody:

1. Thanks ... I guess.
2. I may not have been clear. The figures in this piece included Super PACs.
3. I'm not sure I follow the consistency between your points 3 and 5. My point is that contributions are *not* monocausal. There is ample research, in fact, suggesting that money may follow anticipated electoral success rather than causing it.
4. The complexity of the modern state helps to explain these. I take it you know of such deals and they offend you. It is irrational of a politician to take a contribution that offends you in exchange for money s/he needs to try to persuade you--*unless* the state does so much you could not rationally cast your single vote in protest of these, in which case we have a classic case of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs. In that case, money *may* explain the subsidy for Arabian horses, but it is not necessary to. If the political cost of supporting such a subsidy is zero, because you can't rationally protest it, all a representative needs in exchange is a single vote from an Arabian horse dealer. So I would argue these subsidies are over-determined. Moreover, corruption is a touchy thing to define. Why is it corrupt for the Arabian horse dealers to support politicians who support their subsidies but not for a senior citizen to cast his/her votes based on who supports Social Security?
5. Of course contributions affect electoral outcomes. I didn't deny this; in fact I said they were necessary to electoral success. I simply said they couldn't overcome voters' desire to vote for one candidate over another.
6. I am certain there are plenty of them (James Buckley, e.g.), but I fail to see what this would prove in either direction. Politicians support campaign finance regulation because campaign finance regulation almost always protects incumbency. Former politicians' memories of incumbency, and the benefits that accrue to it--and that continue to accrue to them because of it (they are, for example, much less valuable as lobbyists without relationships tied to incumbency)--are as fond as current officeholders'. They may also (and understandably) resent the time they spent raising money, which, incidentally, is an unintended consequence of contribution limits. But again, I fail to see what your point 6 would prove even if true other than by anecdote, which I trust, given the empiricism your point 3 suggests, would be an unacceptable method of evidence to you.

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Greg Weiner
on September 29, 2015 at 13:25:16 pm

[N]or are excessive sums necessary for those to whom the electorate is drawn. This is doubly true in an age where adequate means of communication are essentially free….

Rick Perry and Scott Walker[‘s] fundraising topped $15 million and $26 million respectively, yet they were the first and second casualties of Donald Trump, who has “purchased” his slumping but still persistent lead by spending a paltry $1.4 million.

A. As someone at The Atlantic remarked, Trump arguably has greatly exploited his wealth – and in a manner that Weiner might find difficult to measure.

It is sometimes suggested that politicians have no principles and simply do whatever polls say is popular. This is unfair. Most politicians are not mere slaves to the polls; they are also slaves to their funders. And as people who must serve two masters, they must make compromises. Mitt Romney was caught on film disparaging the alleged 47% of Americans who are the “takers, not makers.” But Romney didn’t say this in public; he said it at a private fundraising dinner, speaking to plutocrats who like to hear talk like that. That is, Romney had to spend some time and attention catering to people who could never repay his efforts with votes, but could repay his efforts in dollars. Arguably Romney’s split focus proved costly when this message leaked out to the public.

Unlike all the other politicians who must tailor their messages to appeal both to the masses and the donors, Trump is free to “be authentic” – meaning free to pander to the masses unburdened by the need to pander to donors. I suspect this is an enormously valuable advantage, even if we can’t measure it in terms of campaign expenditures.

B. Yes, some politicians are especially good at attracting free media attention. As I argue above, this may reflect to some extent the politician’s wealth which frees the politician to tailor messages to achieve this kind of publicity.

But can we otherwise generalize about the kinds of messages or people who are best able to get this kind of free publicity? In particular, are such attention-grabbing campaigns especially likely to be demagogic? And if so, do we want to structure campaigns to favor this kind of candidate or message over the more technocratic kind?

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nobody.really
on September 29, 2015 at 20:36:27 pm

Nobody:

Agreed with comments.

However, the *free* media to which i was referring is not something that is simply publicity but rather a willingness to "splain away" the problems of a favored candidate or conversely to publicize only the problems of the favored candidates opponent. Add to this the unrelenting *progressive* tilt in editorial columns, news items, etc and it may be argued that far more than money media support is essential (and not just while running for office). Do politicians of all stripes not love the camera? Does the Pope go in the Woods?

As an example: view the local papers today; then go back and get a copy of the same paper of 8-10 years ago. compare the nature of page 1 stories (or all of the first sections). See any difference. During W's time in office there was never a day when he was not being lambasted or called to account for one thing or another; todays papers do not mention or criticize the Big O - rather there are stories on local transportation, schools, etc.

Could not a reasonable outside observer conclude that there are as many potential causes for complaint with the current Administration as with the other AND then wonder why the media (both local and national) do not appear to be doing as thorough a job as they did 10 years ago.

Ahhh! perhaps, it is a lack of funds, yeah, right!!!

So yes, money does not necessarily buy votes AND politicians ARE beholden to their donors (witness the Repubs and the Chamber on immigration) but there is another dynamic involved. My tailgating buddies don't give a hoot about how much money a candidate has raised - like most folks they get their opinions from the news and the print media. Of course the truly honest ones state flatly that it is money - i.e., he supports unions, etc etc etc. However, the import of favorable media coverage (or at least the absence of unfavorable coverage) cannot be overstated.

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gabe
on September 30, 2015 at 05:40:11 am

Gabe and Nobody:

I take your points, but I would caution you on two matters regarding the power of the state, which is to say: Do you really want laws arranged to (a) "structure campaigns to favor [a certain] kind of candidate or message" or (b) to overcome the susceptibility of tailgaters to media bias? My own sense is that my average tailgating buddy is perfectly capable of figuring out politics and has ample information available for doing so. (A lot of this has to do with what game they're tailgating at. I doubt the average tailgater at a Cowboys game, who is exposed to the same national media as a tailgater at a Patriots or Jets or Seahawks game, feels the same way about unions, terrorism policy, abortion, etc.) Regardless, even to the extent media bias *or* political spending determines outcomes, I would rather trust an open market of ideas than a political/legal regime designed to regulate campaigns so as to overcome public gullibility. The latter sounds like a bit of a conflict of interest to me. The temptation is always going to be to regulate campaigns to inhibit criticism of the state, which is, in fact, precisely the way incumbents talk about campaign reform: too many "attack ads." (And if media bias is the problem, private spending is presumably the answer.)

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Greg Weiner
on September 30, 2015 at 16:49:35 pm

Greg:

Forgive my poor phrasing above. I, for one, am not advocating government control or regulation of campaign finance activities. My comment was really intended to show that while money (i.e., direct $$ contributions) play a role in elections, the real "mover" to my mind is media coverage / publicity or selective exposure of candidate policy positions / prescriptions and / or *scandals.*

My own position would be to allow UNLIMITED contributions by any INDIVIDUAL US CITIZEN (and US Citizens only) to any candidate of his / her choice. No aggregations of funds by unions, corporations, churches, NGO's, non-profits, etc.

The problem, however, of the media would remain. Is not the "coverage" by the media a type of in-kind contribution. Yes, you are correct - individual contributors could (should?) buy media time to counter the prevailing bias - but can they buy *editorial time?). In order to be effective such an effort would strain the financial reserves of the Koch Brothers or reversing field, should the media bias turn out to be conservative, even George Soros.

What then - do we re-institute the old Fairness Doctrine. No!
Perhaps, as you say, the free market can overcome this bias.

I suppose I could live with that - if you can live with an amendment that permits only INDIVIDUAL US Citizens to contribute and prohibits corporations, unions, etc from doing so.
The question becomes: do we really need to treat a corporation (or union, NGO, etc.) as a "person" for the purposes of campaign finance? To my understanding the *personhood* of a corporation, or similar aggregation, is a legal construct required for certain adjudicatory purposes. Must we extend that fiction to provide first amendment protections re: our electoral process?

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gabe
on October 01, 2015 at 17:31:40 pm

Gabe,

Sorry for my delayed reply, and for my misunderstanding of your position ... and for being a stick in the mud. But what exactly is the problem with corporate and union spending? In other words, why not just let the flowers bloom? If people want to bind together to speak in that particular way, why not?

Greg

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Greg Weiner
on October 01, 2015 at 19:02:42 pm

Greg:

Simply put and straight out of the old catechisms: I think it is best that we avoid the occasions of sin with corporate or union contributions qualifying for what the good Sisters of Saint Joseph termed the *near* occasions of sin.

More serious note: I do not believe that the Framers contemplated providing "factions" (which is what corporations and unions are) with First Amendment protections. Rather they so structured a government to mitigate the influence of factions. It would seem counter-intuitive to suppose that they would then provide a ready avenue for faction to gain exposure and influence.
And yes, I know that there was campaign financing going on at the time - but still....

take care
gabe

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gabe
on August 25, 2019 at 20:52:42 pm

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on August 25, 2019 at 22:48:43 pm

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on August 25, 2019 at 23:01:51 pm

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on August 26, 2019 at 01:34:42 am

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Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.