On the surface, the 2016 presidential election looks like an important milestone for those who want to limit the influence of money in politics. After all, populists from opposite ends of the political spectrum, Sen. Bernie Sanders and billionaire Donald Trump, have made campaign finance a major focus. Both argue that their competitors have been bought and paid for, and are looking out for their big-dollar donors instead of the average middle-class Jane.
But to conservative campaign finance reformers, this presidential election is proving something different: money in campaigns is overrated.
If money made that much difference in this campaign cycle, they argue, then former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s $100-million war machine would have overcome a candidate like Trump, who’s barely raised any cash.
The clashing interpretations aren’t just an academic exercise. There's a possibility that Congress’ partisan makeup could change significantly next year. Advocates on both sides are preparing their arguments ahead of a possible legislative debate — convinced that a war of rhetoric could shape what lawmakers do next with a system that has been torn asunder since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling.
“Wherever this goes, we’ve known for a while … that the public in both parties does not like the status quo of campaign finance,” said Trevor Potter, former chairman of the FEC.
Trump vs. Sanders
Potter, a Republican and prominent critic of recent changes to the campaign finance system, said he is happy that Trump and Sanders’ message has resonated with voters. The two men speak differently about money’s role in politics, of course: Trump has repeatedly insisted that he’s self-funding his campaign, and said most donors contribute to curry favor with a candidate — as he has done himself in the past. (Trump is, in fact, accepting donations, though he is raising and spending less than many of his past and current rivals.)
“Look, I know the people that want something,” Trump said on CBS' "Face the Nation" in August. “I've been doing this all my life. I've been a very big contributor to many, many people on all sides for many, many years. I don't want lobbyists. I don't want special interests.”
Sanders, on the other hand, is raising money — more of it, in fact, than Hillary Clinton so far in 2016. But his fundraising has been concentrated among small-dollar contributors. He’s foregone the help of any Super PAC, and has repeatedly criticized the former secretary of state for accepting money from Wall Street.
The reason Sanders’ candidacy has resonated unexpectedly well among liberals isn’t just his progressive agenda, according to Stan Greenberg, a veteran Democratic pollster who advised former President Bill Clinton. It's also because his policy proposals work in tandem with the promise of campaign finance reform. In Greenberg’s telling, many voters across the political spectrum believe that reform has to happen to give other legislation to their liking any chance of passing.
A public referendum
This is proof, Greenberg and his ideological allies say, that the public is issuing a mandate to change the campaign finance system, which they believe has evolved to favor the rich and the special interests over the middle class since the Citizens United ruling. The Supreme Court’s decision paved the way for the creation of Super PACs, which can accept uncapped contributions, and the heavy electoral involvement of non-profit organizations, which can accept anonymous donations. Both kinds of groups can accept money directly from corporate treasuries.
Even if the public is fixated on campaign finance reform — a point still contested by many conservatives amid economic uncertainty and concern over terrorism — the presidential race shows something else: money can’t necessarily buy an election. If not, conservatives cry foul on Democrats' fears about floods of cash.
Like liberals, they, too, point to Trump’s campaign as evidence.
Money is out
It isn’t just that Trump has become the Republican front-runner despite spending considerably less than his rivals. Many of his best-funded foes haven’t even lasted to the campaign's final stage. The largest on-air spenders are Bush’s campaign and super PAC at $77 million and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s campaign and Super PAC a $68 million, according to Elizabeth Wilner, senior vice president at Kantar Media Intelligence, a firm that tracks TV ad spending. Trump and his allies, on the other hand, have spent $16.4 million on TV advertising as of Monday.
At $63 million and counting, a conglomerate of groups opposing Trump’s bid is the third highest spender, according to Wilner.
To non-partisan analysts, the lack of impact from big-spending groups is proof that the main benefit of well-financed campaigns — the ability to run TV ads — is no longer as important as it once was.
"From an outcomes perspective, this has not been a great cycle for TV advertising," Wilner said.
There’s less evidence of the trend in the Democratic race. Clinton and Sanders have both spent heavily on voter outreach and TV ads, and it isn’t clear what impact that's had on the former secretary of state's comfortable delegate advantage over the senator from Vermont.
But to conservative campaign finance experts, the GOP race has proven a point they have long tried to make.
“People who actually study the data have known this for years, but this election has graphically illustrated it,” said Hans von Spakovsky, senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
Trump the exception?
That claim prompts eye-rolls among some center-left reformers, who contend that Trump is sui generis, and his unparalleled domination of free news coverage has allowed him to bypass many of the usual campaign necessities. It’s an advantage that other candidates simply won’t have, they say.
"Trump is unique in the campaign finance world, not only because he’s a billionaire financing his campaign … but beyond that, because the press has given him an advantage they have not given anyone else," Potter said. "For every other mortal, or everyone else who isn’t as outrageous, the question is how do you get your message out?"
Nonetheless, Spakovsky, who like many conservatives considers questions of how money can be spent on elections a matter of free speech, said he still doubts the public will demand that Congress reform campaign finance laws in the near future. Even if Democrats are convinced, he added, Republicans learned their lesson after many of them backed the McCain-Feingold 2002 law, establishing the current campaign finance system before the courts picked it apart.
“The Republicans who voted for it back then won’t vote for it today,” he said. “I think there’s solid opposition to it on one side of aisle.”
That could change, however, if Republicans suffer heavy losses at the ballot box this year with Trump as the party’s presidential nominee: “It’s going to depend a lot on who’s in the new Congress.”
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