Money is one of those things you’re not supposed to talk about in polite company. This discomfort with discussing money extends to the political sphere, and the recent Colorado gubernatorial primary provided a great example.
The discussion of money came to dominate the Democratic gubernatorial primary there. At the final debate of the primary in mid-June at the University of Denver, campaign finance was one of the few topics that generated sharp disagreement.
In particular, Rep. Jared Polis was accused of attempting to buy the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. (You can watch the segment below.) Polis is one of the wealthiest members of Congress with an estimated net worth of nearly half a billion dollars. He raised a small amount of money in the contest but massively outspent his opponents, putting in more than $11 million in his own funds to purchase a barrage of advertisements. In the debate, Lieutenant Governor Donna Lynne, claimed that the election was “for sale.” Former Treasurer Cary Kennedy noted that Polis had already spent more than all the candidates spent in the last gubernatorial election combined, and complained that there were no limits on self-funders. Former state Senator Mike Johnston asked, “Is this an election or is this an auction?”
But this wasn’t the only complaint. Polis and Kennedy both complained about out-of-state PACs and donors, including Mike Bloomberg, supporting Johnston. Polis suggested that the reason he had to put so much of his own money into the campaign was to compete with millions of dollars of out-of-state donations going to the Johnston campaign. Johnston countered that Polis should have limited his spending on his own campaign. When Polis and Johnston argued about this, Kennedy said, “This is exactly what’s hurting our democracy.”
I’ve written about this elsewhere, but just to be clear: I don’t see this as a healthy dialogue. This strikes me as pretty representative of campaign finance arguments used across the country, and what they really suggest is that voters are just uncomfortable with money and almost any discussion of it can be spun as a negative. If someone spends too much of their own money, that’s considered wrong. Ditto if they spend too much of someone else’s money, or if they spend money that came from another district or state. One of the only positive ways of talking about campaign money is for a candidate to boast that they’re doing well on donations from small donors—Johnston did that in the debate, and Bernie Sanders did it extensively during the 2016 nomination contest. People who donate small amounts of money are for some reason assumed to be more virtuous than bigger donors or PACs. But small donors have their ideological stances, as well. Indeed, they tend to be some of the most ideologically polarized donors out there, according to Brian Schaffner and Ray La Raja’s research, and if donations cause polarization, small donors bear some responsibility for that.
Can we actually assess any of these concerns? Jared Polis won the primary—did he buy the victory? We don’t have a great sense of what that would even mean. Importantly, in the Republican gubernatorial primary, Walker Stapleton won the election handily but spent a good deal less (in both his own money and his contributors’) than one of his opponents. In the late June Democratic primary in New York’s 14th congressional district, Rep. Joe Crowley outspent challenger Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez 17:1 and still lost to her by double digits. Donald Trump managed to win many primaries in 2016 without being the biggest spender in the group. Spending is certainly correlated with success in primaries, but there are many examples of money, even lots of it, failing to deliver votes.
But money can play more subtle roles. A candidate obviously needs some minimal amount to be taken seriously as a candidate, to pay filing fees, to obtain office space, to hire a staff, and do the other basic things candidates have to do to win any votes at all. Money can also shape the race one is in. Polis’ promise to spend millions of his own dollars on the gubernatorial race may have helped to force out Rep. Ed Perlmutter, widely seen as a potentially strong candidate but who couldn’t have raised nearly as much.
I know we generally don’t think of it this way, but campaign donations are a form of public service. There’s very little evidence that they actually guide the voting behavior of elected officials. But they do help purchase advertising time, which goes to support local media outlets and helps to teach voters about the candidates’ stances. It’s basically a political education campaign paid for voluntarily by the country’s wealthiest people.
Campaign funds are obviously necessary, and more of it is better than less of it, even while it doesn’t guarantee a victory. But we remain deeply distrustful of it. What can be done? One way out is some sort of public campaign finance arrangement along the lines of Maine’s current laws—the Colorado Democratic gubernatorial candidates all expressed support for this even while defending their own spending. But moving to that requires convincing voters not only that political advertisements are good, but that they should be paying for them. That won’t be the easiest sell.
Seth Masket is a Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver. He writes regularly at Pacific Standard and Vox/Mischiefs of Faction.
Purchasing Power: The Conversation
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