Will money corrupt our elections?

Increased campaign spending isn’t as daunting as it seems.

Derek Olson

There is a lot of anger over the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, which struck down limits on the amount that individuals can donate to political campaigns. People from across the political spectrum — right, left and center — are concerned that more money in politics is a bad thing. It quite possibly is. However, there are at least a few silver linings to the ominous dark cloud of big campaign contributions.

There is one thing that every member of Congress has in common: They are all incumbents. It follows that campaign finance restrictions are one of the few issues that receive bipartisan support because they invariably benefit incumbents. Incumbents receive all kinds of free publicity from the media for years before voters even know the name of any challengers.

Challengers need a lot of money just to inform voters of their name, let alone to convince voters they’re a better candidate. It partially explains the puzzling irony of Congress’ abysmal approval rating. It’s lower than public support for cockroaches, yet we only vote a few of them out. If that’s not shocking enough, Congress is less favorable than Nickleback.

Studies have found that political advertisements increase voter knowledge, interest and turnout. The election process simply isn’t democratic if voters don’t know anything about the candidates. Neither is it democratic to give big election advantages to those who already hold power.

It’s generally true that candidates who raise the most money win the most elections. However, we can’t be certain about the direction of the correlation. It’s arguably true that winning candidates raise the most money precisely because they have the most support.

Money can’t buy elections. Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman is all too familiar with this truth. Whitman spent $144 million of her own money on her California gubernatorial campaign and still lost to a candidate who didn’t raise half that amount. To put that in perspective, there are fewer than 2,700 families in the United States who have a net worth over $100 million. Whitman blew such a colossal heap of personal money that it was large enough to be among America’s wealthiest fraction of 1 percent.

Interestingly, there is little correlation between wealth and political opinions. According to a recent Gallup poll, just 39 percent of the nation’s wealthiest 1 percent identify as conservative and 20 percent as liberal. Among the remaining 99 percent, 40 percent identify as conservative and 21 percent as liberal. Among moderates, too, the difference was just a few percentage points.

There’s no evidence that additional campaign spending will inevitably create a flood of policies that favor the rich. The ire that emerged from the court ruling isn’t entirely rational, but that doesn’t mean I welcome more campaign spending with open arms.

Alas, there is a clear way to curtail the largess of money in politics: make the size and scope of government smaller. There is so much money in elections because there is so much power riding on the outcome. If a corporation pays $1 billion in taxes, it has a billion-dollar incentive to buy itself a politician, and with that a special exemption.

The less power politicians have, the smaller the incentive to buy their influence.