Why Campaign Finance Rules Make Free Speech Expensive For The Little Guy

Why Campaign Finance Rules Make Free Speech Expensive For The Little Guy

By using power, money, and influence to silence dissenting speech, elites go beyond honest political debate and threaten the very nature of democracy.
Dan Backer
By

The great thing about free speech is that it is, in fact, free. You don’t have to spend a single penny to speak your mind—just ask the local street-corner preacher or campus protester. Being heard is what costs money, and in the robust marketplace for political speech, it takes a whole lot of money to spread a convincing message that influences our politics.

Conveying political ideas, whether for or against an issue or candidate, requires a compelling, persuasive message effectively delivered multiple times to the right audience. Most of us, even if we have good ideas, aren’t always effective at delivering the most persuasive version of our vision.

If your goal is persuading others to support your views (and effective political speech often requires persuading a great many people), it helps to have on your side professionals who know how to craft political communications. Their job is to help you deliver the most persuasive message so you can be effective in building a movement to win the argument.

It takes money to create those persuasive messages, particularly when that message must be delivered in multiple ways over time without losing its potency. Persuasive political communication that actually and consistently cuts through the noise of today’s political environment is uncommon. If you’re good at it, you’re pretty rare. With so many willing to pay for their message to be heard, the better the communicator, the greater the premium.

Reaching Lots of People Costs Lots of Money

Of course, no matter how persuasive a message is, if no one hears it, you’re only convincing yourself. Some might encourage confining your advocacy to random Facebook posts, as if adherents come to ideas like flies to honey. That sort of nonsense keeps good ideas unheard. You must keep your supporters engaged and interact with new supporters to build a movement. Whatever mechanism you use to engage—TV, radio, print, billboards, phones, mail, emails, websites, Facebook posts, tweets—at any real scale comes at a cost.

For example, let’s say you wanted to communicate to a relatively modest 100,000 people. How would you?

  • Email costs from $0.25 to $2.00 per thousand sent; a $1 average (one-tenth of a penny per email) is $100 to send a single message. Sending just once a week costs $5,200 per year. Keep The Promise Pac, a pro-Ted Cruz super PAC, spent $110,000 in spring 2016.
  • Facebook likes can cost $0.05 to $0.10 each, and $0.50 or more per click to a website. The Republican National Committee paid Facebook more than $340,000 in March 2016 alone for “Advertising.”
  • Robocalls average $0.03 per minute, so a one-minute call would cost $3,000. Rep. John Shimkus spent $29,000 this spring on robocalls.
  • Live calls cost roughly $2 per phone call. Sen. Rand Paul spent more than $20,000 on live calls to voters in July 2015.
  • Direct mail can range from $0.50 to $2.00 per piece. That’s at least $50,000 to send a single mailer. In the first half of this year, Priorities USA Action spent $1,420,704 on direct mail alone.
  • Radio and TV costs can be stratospheric, and it’s exceedingly hard to measure their success. Pro-Jeb! super PAC Right To Rise spent nearly $100 million on its ultimately unsuccessful national media campaign.

All this communication only comes after slowly building, expensively buying, or more commonly renting access to enough leads to produce those 100,000 contacts. Simply communicating to people once isn’t enough, and you will keep paying the cost of first contact every time unless those you reach opt-in to your message.

Finding low-cost solutions to this problem is vital. While the finest of political insiders often deride petitions, for example, they serve the basic function of exposing recipients to a message they may agree with, letting them choose to engage and reducing the cost of continuing to communicate thereafter.

When communicating those persuasive messages, at whom should you direct them? That’s the key to building a winning campaign, and why identifying the persuadable is a multibillion-dollar industry as relevant to politics as it is to selling soda, sports teams, or cars. It’s the professionals who understand how to acquire the data to reach the right people while maintaining a budget and crafting the kind of ongoing messages to sustain and grow a political audience. Before you know how to convey your ideas, you have to know where the audience is, and how to reach them.

Campaign Finance Laws Require You To Pay Lawyers, Too

Unfortunately, an incoherent, oft-unconstitutional mish-mosh of laws have made engaging in political speech stunningly complex and burdensome. You cannot meaningfully engage in any political activity or speech without paying for legal and compliance services to navigate the regulatory forest artificially placed between you and the public. If this strikes you as entirely unfair to new speakers and hugely beneficial to entrenched incumbents with near-limitless access to money to hire the few attorneys who practice in this arcane, esoteric field, you’re right.

After paying to create a persuasive political message, the ability to communicate it through one or more means, access to the audiences you will deliver it to, and the lawyers to ensure you comply with the absurdity of ever-changing laws restraining free speech, you now have an interesting problem: All that free-speech suddenly costs a lot of money.

This isn’t a terrible burden if you or your friends are rich enough to pay for any communications you want, famous and powerful enough to communicate for free via a receptive media, or the media itself with an embedded infrastructure to communicate its own political message whenever desired. None of this is a bad thing. Those who can speak and be heard have every right to do so, and it’s just as wrong to limit their speech as anyone else’s.

But, if you’re not one of these political elites, just an ordinary person who wants to participate in political speech, you have no option but to ask for money from the very people you are communicating with. You have to band together with the like-minded to build up the same ability to spread your own message into the marketplace of ideas.

It takes money to raise money; to hire skilled professionals to regularly craft messages to not only convey ideas, but also solicit and receive the financial support of others to promote those ideas further. That’s why the flip side to political communication is a fundraising solicitation. You must communicate your ideas to an audience while asking those who agree with you to support your continued effort. It’s a simple truth: the only way the vast majority of us can engage in any meaningful speech and make a difference is by contributing time, talent, and treasure through collective political action.

Notice How the Rich Want to Make Speech Expensive

Collective political action requires grassroots fundraising. You cannot have one without the other. We know this is true because every successful political movement has had both. Practically, raising money from individuals in small amounts has a much higher per-dollar cost than raising massive amounts of money from a few wealthy donors, and building a lasting grassroots infrastructure to achieve political goals—as every successful movement has before—is an expensive proposition for all the reasons above.

It’s the inability of the powerful to embrace criticism that makes critical speech all the more vital.

For those elites with access to unlimited money to hire the best, most skilled fundraisers, communicators, and marketers, this isn’t hard. But when individuals who aren’t rich, famous, or powerful attempt to start and build organizations to promote their own ideas and values, their efforts and message is often met with derision, or worse.

By attacking any outsider voice offering its own perspective as “scam PACs” manipulating voters, modern elites arrogantly condescend to their fellow Americans as incapable of making their own political decisions and unworthy of engaging in political speech. Powerful elites have as much right to free speech as anyone else, but no more of a right.

By using power, money, and influence—and, increasingly, the levers of government—to silence dissenting speech, elites go beyond honest political debate and threaten the very nature of democracy. Whether it’s candidates and officeholders you criticize, entrenched political organizations and interests whose policies you challenge, or a media whose grasp on the public’s attention you seek to loosen, those with power never want to share it with those without it.

It’s natural for the status quo to resist change. That’s not conspiratorial; that’s human nature. But suspicion of power, and the ability to question the powerful who often do everything they can to maintain their position, is a foundational principle of our democracy. Our tradition of free speech derives from the tendency of political power to suppress dissent.

Moreover, it’s the inability of the powerful to embrace criticism that makes critical speech all the more vital. We should be far more interested in what everyone else says about a candidate than what the candidate says about himself, and recognize the effort to delegitimize any speech—especially critical speech—for what it is: the powerful seeking to preserve their power.

Dan Backer is founding attorney of DB Capitol Strategies, a premiere campaign finance and political law firm boutique in Alexandria, Virginia. He has served as counsel to more than 60 campaigns & candidates, PACs, and political organizations and regularly represents political law clients before the FEC and in federal court against the FEC.

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