Exceptionally wealthy donors and professional fundraisers are rapidly gaining influence in American Presidential elections, and they’re doing it at the expense of voters. The constant task of raising money is clearly driving our “democracy,” even if we can’t predict where. There’s no doubt, however, that candidates are putting more and more of their very scarce time into dialing for dollars.
The toll for massive advertising wars must be paid, even if it means relegating sober discussions of critical issues to the backseat. Soliciting donors comes first. No river of funding; no traction. Success at “raising dough” has become so critical, a group called EMILY’s List flaunts the process in its name, which stands for “Early Money Is Like Yeast.”
The trend has been obvious for decades, but things entered a new phase recently, due to a series of successful lawsuits by pro-Republican activists. As a consequence, numerous constraints on fundraising have been wiped away, freeing private and corporate donors to spend vastly more on political advertising than ever before.
Politicians also have new freedoms. Partisan gridlock has crippled the Federal Election Commission, giving candidates wide latitude to ignore many of the campaign finance rules that remain.
It won’t be long before we find out whether our democracy can absorb this rich haul of yeasty money, or succumbs to its infectious growth. But the early effects are unmistakable.
Candidates now have leeway to engage in long, drawn-out “testing-the-waters” pre-campaigns. It’s a ruse that allows them to coordinate the financial puff up of supposedly “independent” Super PACs, while simultaneously puffing up their own political profiles. Scott Walker and Jeb Bush are taking full advantage of the opportunity to build massive campaign war chests. The titanic primary battles ahead are just another symptom of money’s runaway infection.
The Republican Party is making things even worse by radically cutting the number of scheduled debates, presumably to allow the contenders more time to raise funds for negative ads.
With around a dozen serious candidates, the GOP could try steering their collective discussion toward a fortifying restatement of Party principles. Instead, “lower tier” candidates can expect to be muffled or treated like props during the showcase debates, if not shut out altogether. It’s likely they’ll be driven to shout over and at each other out of fear they won’t be heard at all.
As the public is cheated of opportunities to hear issues rationally explored, advertisers get more funds to ensure we’re emotionally detoured.
Coffers are filling for 2016. Brace for negative ads.
Or, as an alternative, consider how to make them irrelevant.
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The current political environment results from a set of Supreme Court decisions in the Citizens United and McCutcheon cases. Those rulings eliminated significant rules and limits covering campaign contributions and expenditures.
In the aftermath, many voices on the left have been calling for a constitutional amendment that would enable stiff regulation of fundraising and spending. Senate Democrats initiated legislation to do just that in 2014. It was a quixotic effort that came to nothing.
It’s fair to ask whether Democrats are truly serious about wanting to stop the money flood. They didn’t seem alarmed by an earlier surge, in the summer of 2008, when ace fundraiser Barack Obama won the party’s nomination and abandoned prior commitments to accept spending limits. But that was a promise from a long time ago, which few remember anyway.
What’s harder for Democrats to forget is what happened after President Obama took office. They still resent the strategic intransigence displayed by Congressional Republicans in the face of financial collapse and harsh recession. They still resent the viciously non-stop over-the-top demonization of the President by aggressive right wing media. The still resent the sneering disregard for environmental protection from energy barons who deploy massive fortunes to put their proxies into office.
The last several years have left mainstream Democrats with a foul-tasting suspicion of game rigging by a cynical class of Republican plutocrats. That makes it easy for politicians to fire up the base by doubling down on promises to pursue campaign finance reform that corrals big spenders.
Hillary Clinton, another ace fundraiser, used her kickoff tour in Iowa to announce “we need to fix our dysfunctional political system and get unaccountable money out of it once and for all — even if it takes a constitutional amendment.” Bernie Sanders has made it a showcase plank of his campaign, and he seems unequivocally sincere. Robert Reich, Thom Hartmann, and other prominent figures on the left have committed to reintroducing the amendment. Their movement is already getting support from members of Congress.
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So far, the only Republican candidate speaking out in favor of the amendment is Lindsey Graham. He openly laments the tsunami of anonymously funded attack ads unleashed by the Supreme Court’s rulings. Unchecked, he warns, the explosion of dark Super PAC money in our elections threatens to “destroy American politics.”
Not surprisingly, of course, most Republican candidates don’t see it that way. They typically argue for the right of independent associations to petition the government and to engage in political expression.
Democrats tend to roll their eyes when they hear Republicans declaring themselves to be champions of free speech. It sounds more like a tactically convenient position for a Republican to take than a sincerely held belief, particularly if that Republican is likely to reap the benefits of a billionaire’s blessing. But similar concerns are expressed among the amendment’s rare opponents on the left. Laura Murphy, Director of the ACLU’s Legislative Office, is among those lonely few.
As a matter of principle, Murphy worries about any proscription of free speech. She also believes that the precedent of limiting the rights of specific groups could be as threatening to liberal activists as conservative ones. The effort to “fix” Citizens United, she warns, is a slippery slope that could break the Constitution.
Others who favor legal reform but oppose the amendment prefer to focus on seemingly achievable and practical goals, starting with improved disclosure laws.
Several on the left counter that a legal reform strategy is far too slow, given how quickly power is flowing to the mega-donors. Those who share that apocalyptic-sounding perspective are insisting on aggressive investigation of elite benefactors in order to fully expose what politicians are providing in return for Super PAC donations. For example, Peter Beinart, an alpha political pundit, urges pushing back against billionaires via a “cultural guerrilla war”… “that frontally attacks the oligarchy that dominates our gilded age.”
Another outlier on the left is Jeff Link, an Iowa-based Democratic campaign consultant who’s a regular guest on Political Party Scoopers, a morning show on KCWI in Des Moines. He recently used that platform to weigh in on the flaws of the current finance system, proposing an alternative that he admitted would sound like “heresy” to other Democrats.
I think we need to eliminate the limits. The limits are just a joke. Everyone sets up Super PACs to get around the limit. What we should do is just say, “Look. If you’re a candidate, you can accept anything. You can accept corporate contributions. You can accept it in any amount. You can accept union dues. You can accept anything you want. But you have to report it immediately. And you have to be accountable for every dollar that comes into your campaign, and every dollar that you spend, and everything that you say.”
Link’s dissent is well suited to Iowa, where relatively underfunded candidates have often triumphed, and where big spenders are frequently trounced. For example, Rick Santorum got a narrow win in the 2012 Caucus despite being overwhelmingly outspent by his Republican rivals. TV and radio stations got lots of revenue (especially on behalf of Rick Perry and Mitt Romney), while voters took their time to look over the candidates and finally rallied around the one they preferred.
Iowans have evidently figured out how to reap the economic benefits of expensive media campaigns without being easily swayed by them. Can anything about their relative resistance to political ads be exported to the rest of America? Possibly, yes.
It’s largely a matter of defeating the assumption that resistance is futile.
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Advertisers explain their business model this way: “If you’re not paying for something, you’re the product.” Like television and radio, social media giants such as Facebook and Google provide you with endless hours of free content. They make massive profits in exchange for the opportunity to sell your receptive ears and eyeballs to marketers who pay handsomely to divert your attention.
These days, defining an ad’s audience is no less important than crafting its artwork. When the experts think about how to trigger responses in voters, they start by thinking hard about out whose trigger they’re seeking to pull. Campaigns are paying to locate people within finely sliced populations when their attention is most effectively and affordably captured. These micro-targeted audiences are matched up to ads that resonate with symbolic patterns tuned precisely for them.
Modern advertising combines avant-garde data science with deep demographic insight. It’s like figuring out where distinct schools of fish with distinct kinds of appetites each tend to hang out at lunchtime. Once you know, hooks can be baited accordingly. As industry insiders fully understand, “The medium is the message.”
What may be distinctive about Iowa voters, therefore, is the extent to which they make sure the candidate is the hook-able product, rather than themselves.
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At first look, Iowa’s circumstances seem too unique to be duplicated. Voters expect candidates to meet them face to face at lots of small events, and the candidates oblige, visiting many of Iowa’s 99 counties, sometimes all. The state’s “first in the nation” status gives Iowans unusual leverage over the candidates, who start showing up months and even years ahead of the season opener. Well aware of how much difference their votes can make (and of the accompanying financial windfall), Iowans jealously defend the leading position of their caucuses in the national voting order.
So much is at stake in Iowa, serious candidates can’t afford to ignore it. Failure to prove political viability means being winnowed from the race. It’s particularly true in a crowded, fractured field, where slim margins of votes above or below expectations can mean new life or instant death to a campaign.
So, it’s clear that Iowa has a relatively high proportion of naturally curious people who are willing to put in the time and effort to engage with an extended list of candidates. What’s important is that there are enough of them to constitute a powerfully influential subculture. A simple back of the envelope calculation shows how powerful.
Consider the number of Iowa voters who get off the couch to participate in a local meet and greet. Factor in the average number of hours spent engaging with the candidates. Multiply that by a reasonable wage. It turns out that the monetary value of voter labor can far surpass the advertising bets placed by the campaigns, even in the era of Super PACs.
This analysis applies in New Hampshire as well. Parenthetically, Iowa has the highest voter turnout of any caucus state, while New Hampshire ties for 2nd among primary states. And both rank high among the turnout leaders in the general election.
Iowa is also distinctive for hosting so many “cattle calls” and straw polls. These events are quite popular among the state’s high concentration of social conservatives. But they also have a broader attraction, indicating a general propensity toward self-organization among base voters, whether left or right.
Straw polls energize the discipline and winnowing effects of shared public reflection. They put candidates through a mill… often a pay-to-play one, which helps the host group achieve its own fundraising goals.
The straw polls demonstrate concentrations of local power. They fortify a group’s sense of its own coherence. They make news. They can transform a small number of participants into a force to be reckoned with. That’s why social conservatives tend to run them early and often, as do progressive groups such as MoveOn.org.
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The Iowa experience illustrates that noise is far less troublesome when there are high-quality pockets of signal to draw a crowd. That’s the key to exporting the Iowan resistance strategy. It might even aid development of a long-term immunity: Instead of working to reduce the overall quantity of paid political advertising, divert the candidates into raising the overall quality of their interaction with voters.
Americans have been playing whack-a-mole with campaign funding for as long as anyone can remember. Launching yet another effort to stifle its abuses sounds like the definition of insanity… doing the same thing over and over again, while expecting a different result. We might instead, as a wise man once suggested, “build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
Rather than lament how the smoke-filled rooms of the old party boss era have been replaced by the Koch-filled rooms of the dark money era, why not create rooms that open doors to a new democratic era? Just as it’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness, adding a trustworthy source of signal offers more value than trying to jam ubiquitous noise.
There’s still time to organize a solid discussion on priorities, plans and principles for 2016. Program more debates, not fewer, and explore how to scale them and and make them smarter. Promote online interactive Q&A feedback sites such as AimsPoll, which is designed to help issue-oriented candidates get a fair hearing from self-organizing pockets of issue-oriented voters. Just as candidates appreciate the value of visiting 99 Iowa’s counties, they could learn to appreciate the value of answering AimsPoll’s 99 voter-selected questions.
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American elections suffer far more from our increasingly impoverished political culture than from a ballooning surplus of dark money. Reducing the overall amount of funds spent on advertising won’t necessarily decrease the proportion of funds spent on misleading attack ads.
The Constitutional amendment in the works won’t remedy the inanities of political advertising, and isn’t being designed to do so. It’s primarily an effort to constrain the mounting influence of wealthy elites and corporate actors. If the goal is to increase relative voter power, it makes better sense to do so directly by increasing voter resources rather than by closing off a channel or two of resources available to such wily, adaptable adversaries.
Proponents of a campaign finance amendment are likely to object that the escalating threats from dark money are simply too overwhelming to work around, and must be directly challenged. The shortcoming of that objection is that it presents no positive alternative. Even if manipulative and uninformative ads could be silenced, the void would have to be filled with something useful. Why not cut to the chase?
Moreover, a new Constitutional amendment couldn’t be put in force for the 2016 election anyway. If we need a revolution in the way we run elections, we need it now.
Jeff Link, Brent Roske, Lou Sipolt, Jr., and Craig Robinson on KCWI’s Political Party Scoopers. Link’s heresies start around 3:50.