President Trump spent none of his own money this time

Fundragers splash the cash

The money being poured into US elections is soaring – but it’s often wasted

Columns

This article is taken from the January/February 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.


The thing about big numbers is that they can always get bigger. In 2020, the already gargantuan sums involved in American politics ballooned. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, an organisation that tracks money in politics, a whopping $14 billion was spent on federal elections this cycle. That’s not just a record amount, but more than double the figure from four years ago. Joe Biden became the first presidential candidate to raise more than a billion dollars. In total, slightly under half of the headline figure was spent on the presidential race and the rest was poured into the battle for the House of Representatives and the Senate. 

Nine of the ten most expensive Senate races in US history took place this cycle. Collectively, those nine races cost around $2 billion. In the most expensive, in North Carolina, candidates and outside organisations racked up a tab of more than $300 million. Thanks to two runoff contests in Georgia in January to determine control of the Senate, that record may stand for only a few months.

It’s called “fundraging” and it’s a bipartisan phenomenon

What’s striking about campaign finance in 2020 isn’t just the size of the sums involved, but also how little they appear to get you in return. Michael Bloomberg was in the race for the Democratic nomination for only 100 days but nonetheless managed to burn through $1 billion. In return, the businessman and former New York mayor received just 59 delegates (Biden received 2,687) and won in just one territory, American Samoa (where 351 people voted). Later in the year, Bloomberg’s losing streak continued: he poured $100 million into Biden’s unsuccessful effort to turn Florida blue. Tom Steyer, another billionaire, also self-funded a bid for the Democratic nomination. His $350 million bought him airtime in important states — and zero delegates. 

It wasn’t just plutocrats on an ego trip. Many of those big ticket senate races ended in defeat for the better-funded candidate. In Kentucky, Democratic challenger Amy McGrath had $88 million to spend in her effort to unseat the mild-mannered bête noire of the left, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who managed to raise “just” $55 million. In South Carolina, Democrat Jamie Harrison raised $107 million, $35 million more than Republican incumbent Lindsey Graham. In North Carolina, Democrat Cal Cunningham raised more than double his Republican opponent Thom Tillis. The funding gap in Maine, between Sara Gideon, a Democrat, and Susan Collins, the Republican incumbent, was even wider. In each of these races, the Democrat lost. And sometimes in spectacular fashion: McConnell beat McGrath by 20 points. 

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Away from these high-profile flops, things are less clear-cut. Across the Senate races as a whole, the better-funded candidate won 72 per cent of the time. But that figure isn’t as impressive as it sounds. In uncompetitive races out of the national spotlight, the heavily-favoured incumbent will generally outspend a long-shot challenger. In fact, whether a candidate raised more money than their opponent hasn’t been so weakly correlated to that candidate’s chance of winning for 20 years. 

The high-profile demonstration that no one — not even Michael Bloomberg! — can buy an election in America has so far not led to much reflection about the assumptions people make to the contrary. For all the many ways in which 2020 has proved that US democracy is not “for sale”, the familiar narrative about money in politics nonetheless appears to have survived this cycle. 

Even as ever-greater sums are squandered on unsuccessful campaigns, the consensus among the candidates asking for, and spending, all this cash is that money in politics is a sinister force. When Donald Trump was a self-funded primary candidate in 2016, he described Political Action Committees (PACs), the organisations that raise and spend so much of the money in American politics, as “horrible things” and made much of the fact that, unlike his opponents, he did not have to answer to any donors. Four years on, he spent none of his own money in his re-election bid. 

Biden, who has just benefitted from the most expensive campaign in American history, has promised to sign campaign finance reform into law as president. Incoming vice-president Kamala Harris, an assiduous fundraiser with close ties to the big tech titans of her home state of California, has bemoaned the amount of money swilling around in the system. During the Democratic primary, progressive Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren pledged not to take “a dime of PAC money” in her bid for the nomination. Then Persist PAC spent tens of millions of dollars running ads for Warren in crucial states, a U-turn she justified because “all the men in the race” were being helped by PACs. Girl power! 

This was the most financially lopsided election in American history

Perhaps the biggest irony of the story of America’s rapidly-escalating political fundraising arms race is the Democrats’ dominant position. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s landmark 2010 decision in Citizens United that relaxed restrictions on campaign contributions, Democrats assumed that the playing field was now tilted in the Republicans’ favour. Many on the left worried that the ruling would, as then President Obama put it, “open the floodgates to special interests”. The New York Times warned that the decision would “thrust politics back to the robber-baron era of the 19th century”. 

Ten years on, these warnings have aged disastrously. It’s now Democrats who consistently have the upper hand: this was the most financially lopsided election in American history. (Even if you ignore the contributions of billionaire candidates like Bloomberg, the Democratic advantage persists.) Meanwhile, it would be difficult to characterise the last decade as a time when corporate interests have dominated election spending, let alone seen their preferred election results. It is disrupters like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, not corporate stooges, that have set the running in recent years. 

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These poor predictions point to a bigger misconception when it comes to money and American politics. Campaign donations are widely seen as investments on which those writing the cheques expect a return. But, as an influential 2003 paper by three MIT academics points out, if campaign contributions really were ways in which special interests could buy favours, then one would expect the sums involved to be far higher. Under the provocative title “Why is there so little money in US politics?”, the authors solve this puzzle by arguing that “campaign contributing should not be viewed as an investment, but rather as a form of consumption — or, in the language of politics, participation.” 

Understood as consumption, the large sums involved in the 2020 election make much more sense. Half of all the funds raised by the Trump campaign came in the form of donations of $200 or less. For Biden, the figure was around a third. What did people expect in return for those small sums? Even for those contributing more than a few hundred dollars, the idea that this buys any special treatment is risible. 

If special interests could buy favours, then one would expect the sums involved to be far higher

And for the megadonors at the other end of the spectrum, like Bloomberg and Steyer, or casino magnate Sheldon Adelson who has given hundreds of millions to Republican candidates, the big cheques are still best understood as a form of participation: the thrill of involvement at the highest levels and the conviction that you are using your wealth to save America from socialism/fascism (delete according to party preference). 

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The well-funded losses in Senate races underscore the point. For example, if Democratic strategists could have chosen exactly where to spend the cash, they would not have poured so much into the hopeless effort to unseat McConnell. But that prospect, however unrealistic, proved an irresistible lure for fired-up middle-class Democrats. With just a few clicks, they could issue a $20 middle finger to one of their political villains. 

It’s called “fundraging” and it’s a bipartisan phenomenon. In doomed challenges to high-profile left-wingers like New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and fellow member of the so-called “squad” Ilhan Omar, little-known Republican candidates out-raised colleagues running in more competitive but less exciting races. 

None of this is to deny that low-level corruption and all-purpose swampiness exist: bungs in exchange for favours, an unspoken expectation that some contributions come with strings attached. But these are unconvincing explanations for the ever-increasing amounts of money involved in US elections — a trend that is a symptom, not a cause, of America’s broken politics. 

More and more is being spent because hyper-engaged citizens — some rich, some poor — believe it when they are told that “this is the most important election in history” and want to do their part in this battle for the future of American democracy. Every day, millions of Americans receive text messages and emails claiming to be from one of their political heroes. (“I need you to defend our Election! We can’t let Dems destroy America,” read the message I received from “Pres. Trump” today.)

Chalking up America’s political problems to the shady and corrosive role of money is a conveniently simple diagnosis of America’s problems. Blaming sinister billionaires and shady corporate interests for the rancorous state of US politics is a way of avoiding more difficult questions. 

Will the sums get even bigger in 2024? Who knows? But the answer to that question will be a good indicator of the health of the system. If 2020’s record numbers are surpassed, America’s problems have probably worsened, with the country locked in another all-out hyperpolarised “most important election in history”. If, however, the numbers start to tail off, it will mean the country is a little less politically engaged — and a little saner — than it was in 2020. 

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