In the frenzy following the presidential election, little post-mortem attention has been given to how campaign spending was scarcely a factor in Donald Trump’s surprise victory. In fact, Hillary Clinton’s campaign supplies an excellent argument against the need for campaign finance reform following the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United.
The Clinton campaign raised more than twice as much as her opponent, and when independent money is included total spending for her topped $1.3 billion to Trump’s roughly $800 million. If one is supposed to believe candidates can spend their way to victory, Clinton should have crushed Trump. That she didn’t suggests we needn’t worry about how much individuals or groups donate to politicians running for office so long as it’s disclosed.
At its essence the Citizens United case found that unions and corporations are permitted to spend money on political speech, something that ought to be a remarkably simple proposition in a country where freedom of speech is a founding principle. If individuals have the right to criticize politicians, shouldn’t they be able to get together with others to do the same?
One key reason to not restrict campaign spending is to enable candidates challenging incumbents to level the playing field. It should be easier, not harder, to kick the bastards out. Not only do incumbents typically have better name recognition, but they also have the resources of their office (financed by taxpayers) to deploy against their opponents. Witness how the volume of electorate “newsletters” touting legislative success and things like “work related trips” typically escalate around campaign season. Or recall President Obama’s unprecedented barnstorming of key states on behalf of Hillary Clinton, courtesy of Air Force One and the Secret Service. (Clinton must have forgotten Obama’s dismal record of winning anything other than his own elections, otherwise she’d have turned him down–among other things he personally inserted himself into, the Copenhagen climate deal failed, he lost Chicago’s Olympic bid, and more recently he lobbied for the Remain camp during the Brexit debate.)
To illustrate why it should be easier, not harder for challengers, imagine this fictitious match-up. It’s 2008 and Donald Trump, who beat Bush in the Republican primaries in 2004, is seeking re-election after his first term in office. His approval ratings are low, but his opponent is a relatively unknown first term senator from Chicago with no legislative accomplishments. While Democrats who follow politics closely know Barack Obama and deplore Trump, new campaign finance restrictions prevent individual contributions greater than $200, and corporations and unions are banned from donating. As is the case today, candidates aren’t restricted from personally financing campaigns, which is fine for the billionaire Trump, but Obama is of more modest means. Meanwhile Trump schedules weekly campaign stops through the swing states on Air Force One, but they are ostensibly presidential visits to tour factories or meet with governors. A battle like this would clearly be lopsided.
Just because taxpayers already partially finance incumbents’ defense of their elected positions, we shouldn’t go further and require public financing of campaigns. The citizens of Washington State were wise to soundly defeat last month’s initiative 1464, ironically funded by out-of-state big money donors, that would have resulted in taxpayer financed “Democracy credits” for political campaigns. As other countries have experienced, political parties will keep coming back for more. Witness, for example, last month’s call in the state of New South Wales, Australia for millions in extra funding.
Clinton demonstrated what marketers already know. Consumers won’t buy a terrible product, no matter how much you spend on slick advertising campaigns. So long as donors are disclosed, there’s no good reason to restrict campaign donations and every reason we should encourage free and open political speech.