We are rapidly approaching the pinnacle of a presidential election cycle like none other in modern history, in a year that has already had countless events that have shocked us all. The idea of ‘October surprises’, a common feature of every election year, will likely add to this bizarre year. Past surprises have included Trump’s Access Hollywood tape, W. Bush’s drink-driving scandal and the infamous reopening of an investigation into Hilary Clinton’s emails. But, as mentioned, this cycle has seen a plethora of surprises from start to finish, with the Covid-19 pandemic, and namely President Trump’s disastrous response to it, transforming the race. But within this extraordinary election year, there is one electoral ever-present that hasn’t wavered; the influence of money. This article will briefly outline the historical presence of money in the U.S. electoral process, its influence on the final result and the role it will play both in this year’s elections and future elections.
Money has played a role in U.S. politics for generations. The first campaign finance law was passed as early as 1867, in a bid to prevent employees of the federal government from soliciting money for political campaigns; merely highlighting how long the impact of money in politics has been recognised. However, the enormous amounts of spending seen in modern elections would likely have evaded even the most astute political analysts of the last two centuries. While election spending has been rising for years, regulation in the wake of scandals, like Watergate, seemingly prevented it from spiralling out of control.
Spending in the last decade
However, in the last decade, it has done just that. This is arguably as a result of a landmark Supreme Court case decided in 2010 named Citizens United v. FEC. This case ultimately allowed corporations to spend unlimited amounts on political campaigns by recognising them as individuals expressing their free speech, which campaign donations had been determined as in a previous case. This inevitably opened the gates for a monumental increase in campaign donations from wealthy corporations, whom were able to donate what has become known as ‘soft money’: donations independent of the candidates’ campaigns (usually in the form of advertisements) and therefore without the accompanied regulations. While ‘hard money’ (donations that have limits) still makes up the majority of campaign donations, the presence of ‘soft money’ has increased. This has subsequently facilitated a reduction in transparency as these independent donations have been fuelled by ‘dark money’, where the source of the donations is not disclosed. This has collectively allowed corporations and wealthy individuals to strengthen their grip on the U.S. electoral process while evading public accountability, thereby undermining the entire democratic process. And all because ultimately, the candidates need the money.
Why is money needed?
To compete in elections in the U.S., particularly in Presidential elections, an eye-watering amount of money is required. For example, in the 2016 election, the then-Presidential candidate Trump spent $960 million, while Democratic opponent Hilary Clinton spent a whopping $1.4 billion, most of which came from interest groups backed by wealthy corporations and individuals. But it’s not just the major elections. More local and regional elections are being poached by outside spenders every year. These outside spenders, whom are usually corporations, ultimately decide results by forcing out the smaller home-grown candidates, regardless of their close proximity to the communities they hope to represent. This prominently underscores both the growing influence of money in elections of all sizes and the increasing need for candidates to reluctantly reach out to corporations for donations just to remain competitive. But the most striking thing about this figure is that Hilary Clinton went on to lose the 2016 election despite shattering spending records. This begs the question: why is money increasingly powerful in elections if it doesn’t even guarantee victory?
Having serious financial firepower on the campaign trail does, without question, massively help a candidate’s chances of being elected. The sheer volume of travelling for Presidential candidates alone will add up, not to mention the significant amount of staff required to keep the campaign afloat. Then, of course, there is advertising, where the vast majority of spending goes. But even if hundreds of millions of dollars are poured into these elements of the campaign, victory isn’t guaranteed. Hilary Clinton’s memorable defeat to Donald Trump came despite her campaign outspending Trump’s, with more than $132 million spent in the final month alone; more than 8 times the amount spent in the entire U.K. general election last year. Michael Bloomberg broke records by spending $500 million of his own money on his 2020 Presidential campaign that lasted three months with no competitive victories. Republican Jeb Bush spent $130 million on a Presidential bid in 2016 that self-destructed almost as soon as it began.
What these failures illustrate is that in bigger campaigns, money clearly doesn’t go as far, largely because the candidates involved are already high-profile and thus voters are more decided, particularly with polarising candidates like Trump and Clinton. Thus, spending on areas like advertising doesn’t go nearly as far as in smaller races where candidates are less well-known and voters are more undecided. This perpetuates the increasingly clear view that while money doesn’t necessarily decide who wins, it certainly decides who runs. Smaller candidates with little external funding are squeezed out by this system – only 14 candidates in the 2018 midterms used majority small donors - that has handed huge power to corporations to essentially decide the voters’ choice, showing that in U.S. elections it really is all in the money.
So what does this mean for 2020 and future elections?
Democratic candidate Joe Biden has been consistently out-raising President Trump since the spring, breaking monthly fundraising records in both August and September, and raising nearly $750 million over these two months. This lead in fundraising corresponds with his consistent lead in the polls, which would reinforce the view that the greater spending increases the chance of victory, but we only need to look at 2016 to know we can’t be that naïve. Democrats are wary about celebrating these huge numbers as they did four years ago; Clinton’s vast donations alone were enough for Democrats to guarantee her a victory that never materialised. And what isn’t included in campaign finance figures that proved to be immensely important in 2016 is the significant amount of airtime Trump receives from the media, regardless of whether it is good or bad, that has allowed him to convey his messages without spending a penny. The New York Times estimated that Trump gained nearly $2 billion in free media during his 2016 campaign, compared to $746 million for Clinton. Now while it isn’t clear yet whether this will repeat itself during the 2020 campaigns, a lot of media coverage still remains focused on Trump and could prove to be decisive as it was four years ago.
But there is recognition among both politicians and the public that changes need to be made to existing campaign finance laws to make future elections freer and fairer. A 2019 poll showed that just 1 in 5 Americans were satisfied with existing campaign finance laws, and a poll conducted in 2015 suggested that the changes the public want to see involve strict disclosure requirements for political donations. This could go a long way in restricting the power of corporations and money as a whole in the electoral process, as corporates will certainly be more anxious to donate huge amounts to political campaigns for fear of damaging their public brand image.
It is also encouraging that, while admittedly still scarce, political success stories without the use of dark corporate money are emerging more frequently. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez famously won a New York congressional seat in 2018 through using only small donations, while competing against an establishment politician with a corporate war-chest. Bernie Sanders has a huge base of supporters and has come second in the Democratic Presidential primary race in two consecutive elections, fiercely contesting politicians with huge corporate backing while not accepting corporate donations himself. And while Joe Biden’s campaign does receive financial backing from corporations and wealthy individuals, they have publicly supported proposals for campaign finance reform, including a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United case, which is certainly a step in the right direction for ensuring the fairness of future elections. But for now, the vast majority of elections in the U.S. remain under the influence of money with this election cycle set to be another record-breaker in campaign fundraising, meaning an election without vast swathes of dark corporate money remains a pipe dream.