Friday, November 30, 2007

Campaign Finance and Spending Reform

How easily people are taken in by populist appeals that are used to justify government regulation of political speech. It is common to find the following line of argument in an undergraduate research paper. The Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) reports:

Ninety-four percent of the candidates who raised the most hard money won their 2002 general elections. In primary elections, the candidate who raised the most money won 90 percent of the time.
These figures show an almost perfect correlation between money spent and electoral success. PIRG continues to blow the trumpet for drowsy patriots:
The primary problem with money in politics is that large hard money contributions—which only a small fraction of the public can afford to make—unduly influence who is able to run for office and who wins elections in the United States. Without personal wealth, or the ability to raise large sums of money from wealthy contributors, many aspiring candidates are locked out of the process. Those voters who wish to support views that are rejected by wealthy donors are left without an outlet.
They provide 2002 figures from Federal Elections Commission (FEC) campaign finance data:
U.S. elections are predominantly funded by a small number of large contributors. Just 0.22 percent of the U.S. voting age population contributed at least $200 to a 2002 congressional candidate; this narrow donor pool was responsible for 76 percent of all individual candidate contributions. Only 0.09 percent of the population made contributions of at least $1,000 and accounted for 55.5 percent of individual contributions to 2002 congressional candidates.
It is worth noting that 2002 was an off-year election, i.e. there was no presidential contest to draw people to the polls, so turnout might have been at most 40% of registered voters. Notice also that PIRG provides percentages NOT of registered voters, but of voting age population. That presumably includes people who have not registered to vote, non-citizens, convicted criminals, the insane etc. I suspect also that all those clicking Internet small donors have shifted the figures considerably since 2002, but PIRG is characteristically silent on that. Nonetheless, those ancient 2002 figures aren't all that shocking. Given how hard it is to get people actually to vote, it should not surprise us that the percentage of people who contribute money to a political campaign is a relatively small segment of voters.

But it does not follow that elected officials therefore kowtow to that 1%. To get or keep power, they must still solicit the votes of 50% of the voters plus one. To be re-elected, they must please that same majority. If giving lots of money meant that you could control the outcome of an election, George Soros would have bought the 2004 election for Democrat John Kerry. But thankfully substance, i.e. what candidates say with their money, still matters in American politics.

More evidence that political office is sold to the highest bidder. According to, Hillary Clinton has raised over $90 million for her campaign, and spent half of it already. 88% of that has been from individual contributors, or $80 million. Once again, the leading candidate is the one with the most money. Is she in the lead because she is the most promising candidate, or because she has the wealthiest backers?

First, according to the same source, Barak Obama, though he has raised $10 million less Sen. Clinton has, has spent 4 million dollars more, but he is nonetheless 10-20 points down in the polls. But that aside, it seems to escape many people who encounter these arguments that perhaps greater fund raising ability is related to greater popular support in the first place. Can Senator Clinton's front runner status be reduced simply to her bigger bank account, or might there be other factors? If Mike Gravel (he's a candidate) had $90 million, would he be polling far out in first place? No! He would still be trailing because substantively he is not a good candidate. No matter how well and how often he were to get his face and message out before the public eye, the American people would find him unattractive for reasons entirely unrelated to his "war chest" and what he can buy with it. In other words, there is a reason that Hillary Clinton attracts money!

What about campaign spending limits? Buckley v. Valeo (1976) settled that question, overturning a law which attempted to set such limits, but people still find the notion attractive. In the interest of democracy and of removing the unfair advantage that wealth and wealthy backers gives to some candidates over other, let's level the playing field by setting a cap on how much any candidate can spend in campaigning. We could even adjust it for inflation and for the size of a given electorate. But what if I want to run for the U.S. Senate and I only have $1000 in my savings account? Why should others have an advantage over me just because they have more money? Democracy is about speech and equality, not about money. This is a democracy, not a plutocracy! So the spending cap should be $1000. But what about my neighbor who has only $100 and wants to run? You see the absurdity. If I were a credible candidate, people with whom I had credibility would be thrusting me forward with donations. Hence, the dynamic relationship between the support of the people and the financial means to address them for their support.

Of course, the equal right to speak, guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution, does not guarantee an equal right to the means of speech. Our republic is not only one of equality, but one of freedom. Indeed, the equality is understood in terms of freedom. "All men are created equal." We are equal in our humanity, in our essence. "And we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights." These are liberties, i.e. various aspects of the security in which to exercise our various (unequal) faculties, as well as to reap and enjoy the fruit of that exercise. Thus, though Rupert Murdoch has greater means to speak that I do, he does not have a greater right to speak. Government control of those means would be tyranny. To limit wealthy political candidates such as Mitt Romney, Michael Bloomberg, Steve Forbes or Ross Perot as to how much they could spend in addressing the nation would leave them politically "tongue-tied." But that freedom of the tongue, and by implication any means it can muster in its support, is precisely what the first amendment protects.

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