Grace Segers discusses US campaign financing, and how it’s not going as predicted
On 15 September, 2015, Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin dropped out of the presidential race. Walker was running to become the Republican nominee for president; before the 2016 campaign began in earnest, he was considered to be a favourite for the nomination. As a conservative Republican who had defied labour unions and remained governor despite a recall election, Walker was incredibly popular at the beginning of the summer of 2015. Many factors contributed to his demise as a candidate, namely his lacklustre performance in debates and the ascendance of Donald Trump. Despite initially strong support, Walker’s campaign ended months before the first primary ballot was cast, concluding not with a bang but with a whimper.
The decline of the Walker campaign is significant because it shows how very different the 2016 presidential race is in actuality from initial expectations. Specifically, Governor Walker failed as a candidate despite strong financial support. This election has not been defined by campaign financing in the way that many commentators thought that it would be. If the person with the most funding obtained the most political support, Governor Jeb Bush would now be the Republican nominee. But despite expectations and logic, we are living in a new reality where the candidate who raised the tenth largest amount of money through the end of 2015, Donald Trump, is the Republican front-runner. So why has this election so drastically challenged the traditional concept of campaign spending?
Super PACs and Campaign Spending
Governor Walker’s campaign was heavily reliant on super PACs, “political action committees” which can receive an unlimited amount of funding from corporations or individuals. While these super PACs donate directly to parties or campaigns, they can still contribute greatly to the electoral process by creating advertisements against or in favour of certain candidates. So while super PACs don’t have a direct influence on an election, their indirect influence is theoretically unlimited. Super PACs were created under the support of the Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. FEC in an incredibly controversial ruling. Many critics feared that super PACs would result in the will of the privileged, wealthy few being imposed on the masses. This criticism is not unfounded, but in the 2016 presidential race, the effects of the super PACs are not that simple.
Clearly, super PAC support did not prevent Walker or Governor Rick Perry of Texas from dropping out of the race. Governor Bush provides an even more prolific example of super PAC involvement not equating to a candidate’s success. Bush’s campaign raised $155.6 million through the end of 2015, $123.7 million of which was raised through a pro-Bush super PAC. This super PAC, called “Right to Rise,” has funnelled millions of dollars into advertising that is pro-Bush and against any other candidate, especially Senator Marco Rubio. Yet despite this financing juggernaut supporting him, Bush continues to flag in the polls. He received just over 2% of the vote share in the Iowa caucus, and came in fourth place in the New Hampshire primary.
Bush can take consolation in the fact that he beat Rubio in New Hampshire, but this was probably less a result of the anti-Rubio attack ads paid for by “Right to Rise” and more due to Rubio’s disastrous debate performance the weekend before the primary. Unfortunately for Bush, his good luck in New Hampshire did not extend to South Carolina, where he placed fourth in the Republican primary there on 20th February. Despite the efforts of his campaign financing machine, Bush dropped out of the race the same night.
On the Democratic side, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has far outstripped her rival, Senator Bernie Sanders, in fundraising. She raised $163.5 million through the end of 2015. However, Sanders’ underdog campaign raised $75 million through the end of that year without any assistance from a super PAC, and his support is almost entirely through small donations.
The implications of these changes?
The 2016 presidential election has defied all expectations. A businessman turned reality TV star is the Republican front-runner. A self-proclaimed socialist from Vermont is successfully challenging one of the most accomplished American politicians of recent history. Yet one of the strangest and least-noticed—at least among regular citizens—aspects of this campaign is how moneyed interests aren’t mattering as much as they should. The amount of money raised by a campaign or a supporting super PAC supporting is no longer a measure of success.
Perhaps the seething American id that Trump and Sanders are capitalising on, the Average Joe fury over a “rigged” economic system that is propelling their candidacies, has had a side effect of making big donor fundraising less important than that of little donors. If the 2016 race has taught us anything, it’s that big donors are important, but they can’t guarantee a win—just ask poor Scott Walker, who limped back to Wisconsin in September with $24.1 million in super PAC money and nothing to show for it.
Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons