Despite attempts by modern progressive activists, campaign finance reform has largely remained off the table in mainstream political discussions. In fact, many left-leaning politicians have continued to welcome corporate donations. How much does that money really matter to campaigns, though? What are the opportunity costs of this kind of campaigning?
The reality of campaign finance is that it’s a whole lot less essential to the function of campaigns than is conventionally believed. To confound the problem further, politicians become increasingly beholden to special interest groups that don’t often align with the values and concerns of constituents when they accept large donations. In tandem, these issues create a spiral of voter apathy that hurts Democratic candidates.
Progressives have an incredible opportunity here. By shirking the practice of accepting corporate donations, and by encouraging others to do the same, they can indicate to their voters that they are their true priority. The level of voter energy that it creates has helped to carry candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to victory in the Bronx and has been a rallying cry behind campaigns throughout the nation.
As voters turn wholesale against current campaign finance law, progressives should seize the opportunity by indicating total rejection of the current system and pledging complete restructuring of it.
How Much Does Money Matter?
Writing for his blog, “Freakonomics”, economist Steven Levitt argues that money doesn’t really matter. “When a candidate doubled their spending, holding everything else constant, they only got an extra one percent of the popular vote… So we’re talking about really large swings in campaign spending with almost trivial changes in the vote”. The point of these findings is not to suggest that money doesn’t matter in elections, just that cash injections do not guarantee success.
To illustrate this, Steven Levitt examined the GOP race at the 2012 Iowa caucus. In terms of spending, Rick Perry came first, pushing $4.3 million into the election, but won only 10% of the vote. Mitt Romney came second, spending $1.5 million and earning 24.5% of the vote. Finally, Rick Santorum spent a mere $30,000 on the election but squeaked out just ahead of Romney with 24.6%.
Americans Don’t Want to Vote
Even if it’s true that huge cash injections don’t significantly aid a campaign, candidates still need to find funds. Amidst a grueling campaign season, candidates often understandably view corporate alliances as an easy way to get money so they can focus their attention elsewhere. They need to consider the opportunity costs.
According to Pew Research Center, only about 55.7% of the voting-age public (or 86.8% of registered voters) in the U.S. turned out for Election Day in 2016. Why is there so much voter apathy among the general public, even in an election year that many labeled “the election of the century”?
Money Hurts Our Campaigns
One place to look is what we will somewhat cynically label the “Consumer Confidence in Government Index”. According to a study conducted in 2015 by the New York Times entitled “Americans’ Views on Money in Politics”, that index is not looking so healthy.
When asked, only 31% of respondents expressed views that all Americans had equal influence over elections. Some 66% said that the wealthy had more influence. 84% of Americans said money has too much influence in politics. 55% of respondents think that politicians directly help the people that donated to their campaign “most of the time”.
39% of Americans said the system needed “Fundamental Changes”, while a staggering 46% of respondents said we need to “Completely Rebuild” the system.
Unsurprisingly, 78% of respondents said that campaign contributions should be limited by law.
What’s most startling is that the breakdown doesn’t seem to be affected by partisanship: across the board, both Democrats and Republicans hate the fact that their politicians come with price tags. Therefore, it’s conceivable to think that if campaign finance laws become restructured in a way that pleases voters, voter apathy will turn to optimism, driving turnout up.
This is where progressives should capitalize. As Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight found, it’s likely that registered voters who stayed home cost Clinton the election. An increase in optimism could lead to greater progressive turnout and could be key in taking elections.
Simultaneously, candidates with corporate backing, like Clinton, do not generate much enthusiasm. A huge problem for her campaign was the perception of her ties to elite financial institutions like Goldmann Sachs. This perception damaged her credibility and perceived authenticity.
Authenticity is nothing to scoff at. Campaign strategists have been arguing for decades that authenticity is the most fundamental factor in a candidate’s victory. Democrats, cognitive linguist George Lakoff argues in Thinking Points, lack an understanding of this. They provide “policy dumps” that voters don’t want to see. Voters want a candidate to express their values, and there isn’t a more progressive value than a desire to represent and defend the will of the American people.
Here is where adopting campaign finance reform would be most effective. A platform based on restructuring the current system would give voters confidence in their elected officials and would help re-adjust the Democratic platform away from cold and calculating policy dumps toward a more values-voting approach. This would allow Democrats to appear more authentic overall.
Reform Into the Future
There are a few steps that voters and reformers can take. For now, voters can support candidates that pledge to take no PAC money or corporate donations. That’s a short term solution to a long term problem, though.
Voters want serious change, and politicians need to offer it. Candidates should push for a repeal of Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision that designated campaign spending as free speech, or seek a constitutional amendment capping spending, as some already have.
Now is the time for progressives to be bold. With overwhelming bipartisan support, progressives should seize the moment and push for real structural change. If progressives want electoral success, this is the issue they should make their stand on.
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