Historically, voters have been ambivalent towards mega-wealthy self-funders in big-ticket politics. This has often been true since at least 1958, when Nelson Rockefeller, who was heir to an oil fortune, defeated incumbent New York Governor Averill Harriman, himself an heir to a railroad fortune.
Two years later, John F. Kennedy received criticism about the money lavished on his son’s campaign in the West Virginia primary by his father Joseph Kennedy. Despite the criticism, JFK got away with joking that his father sent him a telegram, 'Don’t buy a single vote more than is necessary. I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide.'"
The affection for self-funding political figures in the 20th century like Rockefeller and Kennedy was partly rooted in the widespread feeling that they were “too rich to steal.” Somehow, you don’t hear that expression much in the age of Donald Trump.
In light of former Starbucks CEO and billionaire Howard Schultz’s potential independent bid for president in 2020, it is worth tracing the impact of self-funders on presidential politics since the Supreme Court’s unfortunate Buckley v. Valeo decision in 1976. Since the ruling, which struck down campaign spending limits for wealthy donors, the mega-rich have been allowed to spend whatever it takes on campaigns.
Take, for example, Ross Perot’s 1992 third-party campaign, in which he won a stunning 19 percent of the popular vote and helped make deficit reduction a dominant political issue throughout the 1990s. Perot’s candidacy may have also contributed to Bill Clinton’s victory, although political analysts bitterly differ on this point.
More recently, in a losing 2008 bid for the Republican nomination, Mitt Romney spent $45 million of his own money — which helped set him up as the “logical” 2012 GOP nominee. And, of course, there’s Trump, the first self-funding president in modern times, although his extravagant boasts about paying for the entire campaign helped fuel his initial boost of free saturation TV coverage. In 2016, Trump actually ran a Scrooge McDuck race, as the $66 million of his own money that he did spend amounted to only 20 percent of his campaign expenditures.
In the cases of Perot, Romney, and even Trump, there were only muted complaints about the unfair advantages of being a candidate who could hold a fund-raiser staring at the mirror in the morning. As Michael Bloomberg demonstrated during his three winning campaigns for mayor of New York, the anguished cry, “He’s trying to buy the election” has a limited track record of working in politics, regardless of the legitimacy of the lament.
That’s why the widespread scorn for Schultz’s initial foray into the 2020 race marks an unexpected change in public attitudes towards self-funders. The former Starbucks CEO aroused what journalists called “a Venti-sized backlash” — both from Democrats who fear that Schultz would inadvertently help reelect Trump and from hecklers who ridiculed him as “an egotistical billionaire.” Initial polls support the aiding-Trump theory: a national Optimus survey found that in a three-way race, Schultz would take away more Democratic votes than Republican votes.
Schultz’s television blitz, which included appearances on 60 Minutes, CBS This Morning, and Morning Joe, prompted a chorus of who-anointed-him cynicism about the level of attention being lavished on someone who has never held public office. This billionaire buildup reached Trumpian levels when CNN announced plans to feature Schultz in a town hall in Houston, even though fewer than half the voters in the Optimus poll knew his name and Schultz’s actual support registers in the single digits.
Weirdly, Schultz (whose net worth is in the 10 digits) has objected to being called “a billionaire.” His public-relations-department alternative to the b-word is “a person of means.”
In the end, most billionaires (whoops, that should read “candidates of means”) running for federal office in recent years have crashed and burned. Republican Linda McMahon, for example, blew through nearly $100 million in two failed efforts in 2010 and 2012 to win a Senate seat from Connecticut.
Many self-funders have an outlandish over-confidence in the power of money in politics — and the campaign consultants who gravitate to these deep-pocketed candidates have little incentive to tell them otherwise. Consequently, in 2018, 19 congressional candidates who squandered more than $1 million on their political ambitions in 2018 did not even survive their party’s primary.
But the unalterable truth in politics is that — all other things being equal — money trumps the lack of money.
Even though Greg Gianforte pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge for attacking Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs, the Montana Republican is currently serving his second term in the House after generously bequeathing himself $2.4 million. And former Florida Governor Rick Scott invested $63 million in his own 2018 Florida Senate race — which proved to be a major advantage against the defeated Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson, who had to raise his money the old-fashioned way, one $2,700 contribution at a time.
That’s why the anti-Schultz onslaught may have a far larger meaning than the fate of his individual candidacy. Because of Buckley v. Valeo, social disapproval is the only weapon available to deter billionaires from dominating politics. It would be ironic if Howard Schultz’s contribution to democracy would be to permanently stigmatize self-funders.
The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.
(Image: Joshua Lott/Getty)