Some people overhyped the influence of money in the last election, but we shouldn’t downplay the need for smart, effective reform.
“We got way too excited over money in the 2012 elections,” my former colleague Ezra Klein said at a conference on inequality and politics at Yale last week, in remarks that he published as a column. A simple political science model for predicting the presidential election, which didn’t account for spending, nonetheless hit the results exactly; Citizens United didn’t unleash a torrent of corporate spending; and even in Senate races, big spending by Republican SuperPACs didn’t make much of a difference.
The first question to ask is, “What do you mean ‘we’?” More than a few of us argued that Citizens United wouldn’t be a world-changer – if major corporations had wanted to take major risks in the electoral arena, there were already ways for them to do it. (It actually had more impact than I thought it would.) And it has long been the consensus in political science that once a candidate or campaign has reached a sufficient threshold to be heard and to be competitive, extra spending beyond that has diminishing returns, whether that spending is within the campaign or from outside groups. That is, you can be outspent 3:1 and win, as long as your 1 is enough to compete in that state. Many wealthy, self-financed candidates have learned that lesson the hard way. All presidential candidates and almost all major party Senate candidates have reached the threshold where additional spending for or against them matters very little. Many SuperPACs, predictably, did more for the political consultants who were collecting fees from them (typically 15 percent for broadcast ad buys) than for the candidates they were intended to support.
There were ill-informed journalists, pundits, and advocates last year who made all sorts of claims about the impact money would have on the elections, but just because their predictions were predictably wrong doesn’t mean that “we got overexcited” or that we should stop being concerned about the influence of economic inequality on the political process. Money matters as a gatekeeper, for example: Many candidates, especially at the congressional or state legislative level, don’t have it and don’t know how to get it. It matters as a framer of the issues that are acceptable for debate – it’s not only money that gave the National Rifle Association the clout to block an amendment with massive majority support, but money helped. Money unquestionably shaped the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation and might ultimately render it almost unenforceable. The life of a member of Congress without a very safe seat revolves almost entirely around money, as an article in the Boston Globe over the weekend showed. Newly elected Democrats were advised last fall to set aside four hours each day for “call time” to donors, more than they spend on any other activity and more than twice the time they spend with other constituents.
If money doesn’t have such a direct impact on election outcomes, then why does it have these other impacts? Are members of Congress overexcited, too? Perhaps, but most often the reason that we don’t see the impact of money so directly in the endgame of presidential and Senate elections is that the candidates have already done whatever they need to do to reach the threshold of competitiveness. They’ve done the three fundraisers a week, the hundred phone calls a day; they’ve avoided the tough votes that would alienate supporters. If they hadn’t done those things, they wouldn’t be there, in what are, in effect, the finals.
That’s why the key principle of reform is not to limit spending in the endgame, but to make it easier for candidates of all kinds to reach the threshold where they can compete, without spending all their time with major donors and without all the compromises that necessarily ensue. Trevor Potter and Bob Bauer, election lawyers for John McCain and Barack Obama, respectively, recently proposed what they called “A New Recipe for Election Reform,” which would “focus not on further restriction funding for political activity but rather on broadening avenues of citizen participation,” drawing on the experiences of states and localities with systems that encourage small donors. This is something I’ve been pushing for many years, and it has been gratifying to see a consensus build around the idea, especially as the state and local programs, such as New York City’s matching funds for small donations, have proven effective, stable, and constitutionally sound.