One of the most interesting and underreported storylines of the 2016 election was the failure of wealthy donors and corporate PACs to steer the democratic process.
Jeb Bush, the Republican establishment’s clear favorite and best fundraiser in the primary, spent $50 million each for his three pledged convention delegates. Rubio, the second biggest cash draw in the contest, sputtered to an unimpressive third place finish with 167 delegates—about one tenth of Trump’s final tally.
Meanwhile, Clinton struggled to put Bernie Sanders in the rearview despite raising 100 million more dollars. And in the general election, Clinton’s campaign outspent Trump’s nearly two to one, while Clinton-supporting outside spending groups outspent Trump-supporting groups by more than three to one, giving her a nearly $400 million advantage overall. Still, she lost nearly every battleground state.
Trump Showed How To Circumvent The Donor Class
Given the indecisive impact of big money in this election cycle, it is time to re-evaluate the popular claim that America has become, in the works of Paul Krugman, “a democracy in name only,” in which wealthy oligarchs use campaign contributions to elect simpatico politicians and control government.
Trump has shown that a candidate who connects with the public can overcome near unanimous opposition from the big corporations and wealthy mega-donors that progressives claim have hijacked the electoral process.
Since at least the 1960s, the correlation between campaign spending and margin of victory in the general election has been negligible. The graph below illustrates the relationship between a winning candidate’s cash advantage and margin of victory. If money influenced election outcomes to the degree progressives assert, presidential candidates who outspend their rivals by the most money should win election by the largest margins. Clearly, this is not the case.
While the candidate with the deepest campaign coffers won election in 10 of the 14 most recent presidential campaigns, candidates who vastly outspend their opponents won by about the same margins as those who beat equally well-funded contenders.
Spending More Money Does Not Guarantee Victory
Congressional elections belie a similar relationship—or lack thereof—between campaign contributions and vote share. Beyond a minimum threshold and taking into consideration factors like candidate quality and incumbency, spending more money does nothing to increase odds of victory. Uncoordinated expenditures by Super PACs, much bemoaned in the post-Citizen’s United era, do not typically move the needle much either.
The disconnect between dollars and ballots demonstrates something political scientists have known for a long time: it takes a lot more than TV spots and full color door drops to win hearts and minds.
Those who advocate for campaign contribution limits or increased public funding of elections paint a picture of a very malleable public that can be convinced to support another political party as easily as they can be convinced to try a new soft drink. For most adults, political beliefs are very deeply rooted and hard to change. In fact, most people’s political leanings are determined before they are born—about 71 percent of teens report their political attitudes are “about the same” as their parents.
Message Matters More Than Money
This is not to say a particularly strong message cannot cut through the din. It can. Trump’s promises to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it, to put America first in trade and foreign policy, and to “Make America Great Again” did not need to be rehashed in ceaseless TV ads to resonate with the public. Weak arguments, on the other hand, have no impact even if repeated ad infinitum. But this only underscores the limits of campaign spending. Message matters and money only buys volume.
The last three elections illustrate more starkly than any the disconnect between campaign expenditures and vote share. Despite the abnormally wide funding gaps between candidates in 2008, 2012, and 2016, each of these races was decided by relatively close margins.
Obama paid much more than the going rate for his four and seven-point margins of victory. Trump, on the other hand, spent far less than many believed was necessary. Of the four winning presidential candidates who underspent their rivals over the last 50 years — the others being Carter in 1976, and Clinton in 1992 — Trump is the only one who lagged behind by more than $2.5 million.
Large Campaign Contributions Are Still Important
The wealthy may not be able to buy votes, but this does not mean their contributions are for naught. Because of the perceived necessity of attracting high-dollar donations, candidates who cannot or do not court the favor of the power elite are often short-circuited at a very early stage in the political process. To be a viable contender for either party’s nomination means passing the litmus test of acceptability among big donors.
This does not mean politicians are simply pawns in the hands of campaign contributors. When a policy question captures the public’s attention, politicians often bow to popular opinion. After all, angering voters in order to attract donations for the purpose of winning over those very same voters would be, to put it mildly, ill advised.
Many policy fights are of great importance to special interest groups, but unlikely to play out across the pages of the New York Times. For instance, when Congress debated whether funds to improve school lunch programs should be earmarked for “fresh” or “all forms” of fruits and vegetables, few parents and students knew the debate was going on or understood the health ramifications of this small change. Canned fruit producers, on the other hand, knew exactly what was at stake. They let members of congress know they had their eyes peeled and their checkbooks poised. In cases like this, politicians can meet the demands of big spending corporations with little fear of public backlash.
At the very least, large campaign contributions assure outsized access. According to one study, congressmen are four times as likely to schedule a meeting with a constituent they know to be a campaign contributor. On the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, White House guest lists are filled by six and seven figure donors and lobbyists.
As John Podesta’s Wikileaked emails demonstrate, big donors have a hotline to those in power. They sit in on closed-door strategy sessions, receive candidates for president at their homes, and get prompt responses to their emails.
Was 2016 An Outlier, Or The New Normal?
Whether Trump’s triumph against the donor class signals a paradigm shift or is just the exception that proves the rule remains to be seen. There are, however, things the Trump administration can do to curtail the reliance of future politicians on corporate PACs and wealthy donors.
Instead of unconstitutionally constraining private citizens from spending their own money on political speech, as Democrats seek to do, the Trump Administration should seek to reduce some of the incentives that lure big money into the beltway. Senator Orrin Hatch once advised entrepreneurs that “if you want to get involved in business, you should get involved in politics.” That shouldn’t be the case.
Today, the federal government is far too deeply involved in every aspect of the economy. As a result, it can and does pick winners and losers in the marketplace. As a result, corporations often cannot afford to keep Washington at arm’s length; as the apocryphal saying goes, ‘if you are not at the table, you’re on the menu.”
Trump should follow through on his promise to “drain the swamp” by clearing the books of labyrinthine federal regulations that tilt the playing field in the favor of political allies and ending expensive government kickbacks to big donors. In so doing, he will assure that corporations rise and fall on their ability to compete in the free market—not their relationship to D.C. elites—and politicians rise and fall on their appeal to the American people.
Trump is uniquely poised to make good on this promise. The fact that he won without the support of big donors and big corporations means he can govern without them too.