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What Jeb’s Failure Does–and Doesn’t–Say About Money in Politics

February 22, 2016 | Adam Smith

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Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and his super PAC raised a jaw-dropping $150 million – and spent much of it – to come in sixth place in Iowa, fourth place in New Hampshire, and fourth place in South Carolina. The easy conclusion some have reached is that money doesn’t matter in politics. And, that’s absolutely wrong in at least four ways:

  1. Big-money candidates are running strong. Just not Jeb.
  2. Having access to a lot of money doesn’t make you a good candidate or mean the rationale for your candidacy fits the moment.
  3. Lack of money means you are shut out. Ask Mike Huckabee or Martin O’Malley.
  4. Outside of Bernie Sanders’ campaign, big money still dominates, representing the elite of the elite, with great influence over the policy debate in Washington.

As professor and election law expert Rick Hasen wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed, “The legacy of Citizens United is not about the ultra-wealthy simply buying elections or about politicians on the take. Money can’t buy you Jeb. Instead, we face a subtler but equally pernicious rise of a plutocratic class capturing private benefits for personal gain.”

1. Big-money candidates are running strong–just not Jeb.

Jeb raised a lot of money, but other candidates did too. The leading candidates behind Trump still have cash and have the backing of billionaires with unlimited resources. Sen. Ted Cruz’s network of super PAC raised millions of dollars in January and had $25 million in the bank by the end of the month. Billionaire Larry Ellison upped his investment into Sen. Marco Rubio to $4 million last month. Those wealthy Americans, and the new ones the campaigns peel off from Jeb’s wreckage, will get face time and influence with candidates and their staff now and if elected.

2. Having access to a lot of money doesn’t make you a good candidate or mean the rationale for your candidacy fits the moment.

In an election cycle that has a reality-show billionaire as the Republican front-runner, who often makes outrageous and bigoted statements, and an outsider Senator from Vermont running strong against the vaunted Clinton operation through an army of small donors, the patrician son and brother of presidents picked the wrong time to run for commander-in-chief. His “shock and awe” fundraising campaign exemplified the public’s anger at politicians and combined with weak early debate performances and weak responses to “low-energy” attacks, he didn’t have a chance.

3. Lack of money means you are shut out. Ask Mike Huckabee or Martin O’Malley.

So while money didn’t lead to victory for Jeb, if you are a good candidate, you better have billionaires and a super PAC ready to go. Money doesn’t guarantee success, but you’ve got to hit a threshold to play and have more ready to be successful. And down the ballot, from city council to Congress, the amount of money needed to run for office acts as a barrier for talented public servants who want to run but aren’t wealthy or don’t have the networks to raise the increasing amounts of money necessary to be seen as viable candidates. Sanders success with small donors is an outlier. When the only path to being a successful candidate is to be a billionaire or know a lot of billionaires, we end up with a candidate pool that too often skews in favor of the interests of the wealthy few.

4. Outside of Bernie Sanders’ campaign, big money still dominates, representing the elite of the elite, with great influence over the policy debate in Washington.

Money buys political access, and in this election, an elite unrepresentative donor class has a bigger role than ever. A full quarter of campaign contributions to presidential committees (campaigns and super PACs) this year have come from people giving donations of $1 million or more, according to the Campaign Finance Institute. As Politico recently reported, the top 100 donors this cycle have spent more than two million small donors combined. The New York Time reported last year that just 158 families gave almost half the funds fueling the early stages of the 2016 presidential race. In the 2014 election cycle, ninety-nine percent of campaign cash from the top 500 donors came from white people, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. They were also overwhelmingly male and had an average age of 65. The donor class doesn’t look like the rest of America, but because of their outsized role in our elections, they get a lot more attention from politicians than everyone else.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC and other campaign finance cases has turned politics into a hobby for billionaires, giving a small, unrepresentative group of the wealthiest Americans an unprecedented ability to wield political power to their advantage—a power even more pronounced at the Congressional level. This leads to our elected officials spending a lot of their time focused on the priorities of these donors and as Sen. Chris Murphy once said, “I talked a lot more about carried interest inside of that call room than I did in the supermarket.”

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Money may not have been able to buy Jeb Bush the Republican nomination, but the reality is that cash is as important as ever in politics. In fact, money’s influence has itself become a big issue in the campaign. Two candidates once considered long shots are shaking up this election cycle fueled by anti-establishment sentiments and voter anger over our broken political system.

Donald Trump has repeatedly said that voters like him because he does not need donor money and cannot be bought. In his South Carolina victory speech, Trump said, “I’m self-funding my campaign. I’m not getting millions of dollars from all of these special interests and lobbyists and donors that once they get it they literally do whatever the politicians want.”

The central theme of Sanders’ campaign is he’ll take on the “corrupt campaign finance system.” He says it repeatedly in debates, on the stump, in interviews, and everywhere else he talks.

As candidates head into Super Tuesday, the issue of money’s influence in politics is inescapable for Republicans and Democrats and voters are clearly being drawn to candidates who harness their anger at a government they increasingly see working for the wealthy at the expense of everyone else.

Adam Smith

Adam Smith is Every Voice's communications director.