Michael Bloomberg spent $500 million this year, and all he got for it was 61 delegates to the Democratic National Convention. That’s 61 out of the 1,397 awarded so far, just over 3 percent of what he would have needed to clinch the nomination. After a disappointing Super Tuesday performance, Bloomberg quit the race, although he promised to spend even more money to influence the primaries still to come.
That $500 million is a nearly unfathomable amount of money to us non-billionaires. It’s not, as MSNBC tried to claim, enough to give each American a million dollars (the real figure is about $1.50 each) but it’s still a ton of money, even to a rich guy, and all of it wasted.
Yet the message from Democrats and the mainstream media remains the same: Rich candidates and rich donors are buying our democracy. Critics of these big spenders should look at the results of the last few years’ elections. If they did, they’d see that times have changed. In this age of social media dominance, money no longer buys elections, if indeed it ever did. Somehow, though, we continue to hear the call for restricting political speech.
A History of Election Spending
The change in the relationship between elections and money has been going on for a while now. There was never an exact correlation, but it used to be more common for the candidate who raised the most money to win the election. Whether that was because people donate more to popular candidates or because more donations helps candidates appear more popular is unclear.
But in 2008, Barack Obama’s record-breaking spending was nearly twice as much as John McCain’s. In 2012, Obama broke his own record, raising $722 million — including outside supporters’ spending, it totaled more than $1 billion. Both times, he outraised and outspent his Republican rivals, and both times he won the election (although outside spending helped Mitt Romney to match Obama’s overall totals).
In 2016, things looked different in many ways, including in campaign fundraising and spending. In the Republican primaries, Jeb Bush was the biggest spender. Between campaign and super PAC funds, he raised $138 million. It netted him four pledged delegates. Four.
Other contenders were not much better. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz spent more than $100 million each. They got more delegates than Bush, but were still well short of a majority, even combined. Ben Carson spent $77 million for all of seven delegates, while Donald Trump spent $76 million and earned 1,457 delegates and the nomination.
If the GOP primaries broke the money-to-votes connection, the general election shattered it further. Hillary Clinton spent more than any Republican to win her nomination: $216 million. That was slightly less, though, than her unsuccessful rival, Bernie Sanders, who spent $220 million.
In the general election, the big money came pouring in. Clinton and outside groups supporting her spent a whopping $769 million dollars, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Trump and his outside supporters spent $467 million — about 60 percent of Clinton’s total. We all know how that turned out.
Money Can’t Buy Elections
The 2018 midterms showed a similar pattern in some states. In Texas, for example, Robert “Beto” O’Rourke spent 70 percent more than his opponent, Cruz, and still lost. Unbiased observers might have taken the results of those election cycles and adjusted the money-to-votes calculus in their minds.
But in punditry and in politics, it is a sign of weakness to adjust your theories when confronted with new facts. Money buys elections? Get money out of politics. Money doesn’t buy elections? Get money out of politics. The slogan never changes.
The Democratic primaries this year are still ongoing, but already the lessons of 2016 are being reinforced. Bloomberg’s half-billion is the headline, but the second-biggest spender, billionaire Tom Steyer, dropped at least $270 million and is already out of the race. That’s more than Clinton or Sanders spent total in the 2016 primaries. Steyer has zero delegates.
These results are a powerful indication that if the people do not want to vote for someone, no amount of campaign spending will change their minds. Yet looking at the campaign websites of Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, you’d think nothing has changed in 10 years. Both campaigns have detailed promises to reduce the ways citizens can participate in election campaigns. Both plans highlight the promise to amend the Constitution to overturn the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC.
What They Really Want
Citizens United has been a bugbear of the left for close to 10 years now, but we hear very little about what the case said or what its verdict meant. Sanders has long been the loudest voice on the issue, but it is not terribly clear what he opposes about the decision. Consider this statement on his campaign website: “Overturn Citizens United, which allows corporations to spend unlimited money on elections.” Is that what’s going on? Are large corporations bankrolling the Trump campaign with “unlimited” spending?
Ignore for the moment the idea of “unlimited money,” something only communists and Washington politicians could think exists. The vagueness of the left’s attacks on Citizens United is intentional because they don’t want you to know that they’re calling for government censorship of political speech. Did that case involve a rich person or rich corporation trying to buy votes? It did not, but you wouldn’t know it from Sanders and Biden.
Citizens United was a small nonprofit corporation that wanted to publish its ideas about a candidate in an election year. Those ideas were contained in “Hillary: the Movie,” a film critical of Clinton, which they wanted to air before the 2008 election. The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, which was designed to “get money out of politics,” prohibited such a film from being aired near election day. The Federal Election Commission ruled the film an illegal “electioneering communication” and banned Citizens United from distributing it.
Love it or hate it, that film was free speech, and the Federal Election Commission action was censorship. The Supreme Court upheld the letter and the spirit of the First Amendment when it struck down that decision and protected unpopular speech from government censorship. When politicians say they want to get money out of politics, what they really want is to get government censors into it.
The reason they haven’t changed their tune is that the call for “getting money out of politics” was never about money; it was always about ideas. Trump showed in 2016 that even without money, ideas that are dangerous to the establishment can take off. Bloomberg and Steyer showed this year that even with money, ideas no one wants to hear will not lead to electoral victory.
Candidates on the left have long received free advertising from a media establishment that thinks the same way they do. But the 2016 and 2020 election cycles broke that connection as the people started getting the word directly from the candidates and their outside supporters.
Yet the drumbeat for censorship goes on as the politicians whose ideas find favor with the mainstream media want to make sure theirs are the only ideas you ever get to hear. Today it will be about money, but only because money is the means to spread ideas. The attacks on the First Amendment will not stop with overturning Citizens United. If they are allowed to weaken the First Amendment, all “electioneering communications” will be restricted, and the free flow of ideas that disrupted the big spenders will end.