Does Big Money Still Matter? You Bet It Does

(Photo: AP/Chris Carlson)

GOP presidential candidates Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush laugh after the January 28 Republican presidential debate.

Good-government advocates are “oblivious to the failure of ‘big money’ to dictate the race,” wrote Bradley Smith, chairman of the Center for Competitive Politics, in a Wall Street Journal commentary headlined “That’s Odd, ‘Big Money’ Isn’t Buying This Election.” One of the contest’s “unexpected surprises,” wrote New America senior fellow Lee Drutman, is how well Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have done with such little backing from wealthy donors.

It’s easy to see why billionaire donors don’t look so influential anymore. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and his super PAC spent $14.9 million on the Iowa caucuses, but won just 5,238 voters (a mere 2.8 percent of the total GOP vote) and a single delegate. That added up to $2,845 per vote—a dismal showing that U.S. News & World Report dubbed “by far the worst bang-for-the-buck performance” of any GOP candidate.

But the failure of Bush or any other big spender to win an election says little about the actual role that money plays in politics and—perhaps more important—in policy-making. As a long list of self-financed millionaire candidates can attest, having the biggest wallet is no guarantee of success. And as election lawyer and author of the recent book Plutocrats United Richard Hasen has noted, the real issue is not just how political money boosts candidates, but how it helps big donors win the tax breaks, contracts, and policies they seek.

Also overlooked in the argument that money doesn’t matter is the ever-growing role that millionaire and billionaire donors are playing in elections other than the race for the White House. Super PACs, which may raise unlimited contributions if they don’t coordinate with candidates, are wading aggressively into not just House and Senate contests, but into gubernatorial, state legislative, mayoral, city council, and even school board races.

Electing a president, which in 2012 cost $2.6 billion, may be the one sphere in which eight-figure checks exert the least influence. The scale of spending is so large, and so many other factors come into play, that even a massive ad buy can end up moving voters only at the margins. But in a House or Senate contest, a multi-million-dollar super PAC can more easily swing the outcome. The further down the ballot big money migrates, the more impact it exerts.

Take the mayoral primary in Philadelphia last year: Super PACs spent more than $10 million, more than twice the total spent by the candidates themselves. Independent outside groups spent more than $8.5 million in New Jersey Assembly contests in November of last year. Even Louisiana’s elementary and secondary school board elections drew $3.5 million in spending by billionaires backing candidates who favor Common Core education standards.

Super PACs are also spending heavily in this year’s gubernatorial contests in Kentucky, Louisiana, and New Jersey. Not to mention this year’s House and Senate races, where the latest trend is candidate-specific super PACs that back just one individual—punching a hole in the increasingly quaint campaign-finance fiction that such groups operate at arm’s length from candidates.

Three of the leading candidates in the Senate race to replace GOP presidential hopeful Marco Rubio in Florida—House members Patrick Murphy, a Democrat, and Ron DeSantis, a Republican, along with state Lieutenant Governor Carlos Lopez-Cantera—are backed by their own personal super PACs. Contributions to the Reform Washington super PAC supporting Lopez-Cantera have totaled close to $1 million, according to recent campaign-finance disclosures, including $200,000 from Miami auto dealer and GOP mega-donor Norman Braman.

In Ohio, a single-candidate super PAC backing Republican Senator Rob Portman, the Fighting for Ohio Fund, has collected $2.3 million with the help of six-figure checks from such big donors as hedge fund managers Kenneth Griffin and Paul Singer, who each gave $250,000, and Linda McMahon, the professional wrestling executive and one-time Connecticut Senate candidate, who gave $100,000. Braman, Griffin and Singer are all major donors to Rubio's super PAC, too, but their Senate money may wield more influence. One of the Democrats competing for the chance to unseat Portman, Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld, is also backed by a super PAC dubbed New Leadership for Ohio.

Such candidate-specific super PACs give big donors an entrée to elected officials when they’re writing bills and making policy decisions. At the state and local level, a massive super PAC expenditure can speak even more loudly in a debate over a development, stadium, or highway plan. Of course it takes more than a super PAC to win a presidential election. But to argue that big money means nothing to elected officials, especially those outside the White House, is naïve at best.

This story has been updated.

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