BIG MONEY IS ALREADY PLAYING A BIG ROLE IN THE 2020 CAMPAIGN

Big money is already pouring into the 2020 election campaigns. The spending by wealthy individuals and corporations continues to grow. Federal candidates have already raised $2.2 billion (yes, Billion) with $1.6 billion of that belonging to the presidential candidates.

Here’s a quick summary of what the major presidential candidates and (supposedly) independent outside groups have spent so far (with 264 days to go!): [1]

  • Bloomberg: $464 million (self-funded, not accepting any contributions)
  • Steyer: $271 million
  • Trump: $218 million plus $35 million of outside money
  • Sanders: $133 million plus $  4 million of outside money
  • Warren: $  92 million plus $33 million of outside money
  • Buttigieg: $  81 million
  • Biden: $  68 million plus $  8 million of outside money
  • Klobuchar: $  34 million
  • Gabbard: $  14 million
  • Weld: $    2 million

Bloomberg is spending roughly $6 million a day of his own money on his presidential campaign. The bulk of his spending, roughly $400 million so far, has gone to advertising on TV, radio, and digital media. He is paying higher compensation to campaign staff than other campaigns in order, in numerous cases, to steal them away from other campaigns. [2] He is literally trying to buy the presidency with his personal fortune.

The 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision allowing unlimited spending in election campaigns by (supposedly) independent, outside groups and wealthy individuals continues to exacerbate the role of money in our elections. The securities and investment industry, for example, continues to increase its campaign spending and was the top industry donor to outside groups in each of the last four election cycles. Since 2012, the industry has spent more than $80 million in each two-year federal election cycle, over $320 million in total. Before the Citizens United decision, it never spent more than $18 million in an election cycle. [3]

Much of the campaign spending by corporations and their industry associations is done through Political Action Committees (PACs). Business PACs have already contributed $179 million to federal candidates and parties in the 2020 election cycle. Business PACs account for 73% of PAC contributions, dwarfing the spending by unions and issue-focused groups. Although the contributions themselves must be made by employees, shareholders, and their family members, the business can pay for all the PAC’s expenses and provide incentives to donors for giving to the PAC. The corporation’s direct spending on PAC expenses does not have to be disclosed. Business interests couple their dominant PAC spending with dominant spending on lobbying to give them great influence in policy making. They target specific candidates, often incumbents, who will be in influential policy making positions (e.g., on committees) relevant to their interests. [4]

PACs are supposedly independent of candidates’ campaigns, but they often share office space, staff, and other resources with candidates, House or Senate leaders, or the political parties. [5]

The amount of “dark money” in campaigns is growing, which means voters know less about who’s spending money to influence their votes. (“Dark money” is money that is laundered through non-profit entities that supposedly don’t have political spending as their main purpose and therefore do not have to disclose who their donors are.) In 2019, $65 million in “dark money” has flowed into PAC spending on 2020 election campaigns. In the 2018 election cycle, $176 million in “dark money” was given to PACs. The total for the 2020 election cycle is all but certain to be higher.

A recent report from the federal Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that campaign finance laws and enforcement capabilities have not kept up with the issues presented by “dark money,” unlimited spending, and on-line political spending. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) doesn’t have clear standards on what constitutes political activity in non-profit entities or the extent to which non-profit entities can engage in political activity. Furthermore, it is not reviewing donor lists or sharing them with other federal law enforcement agencies for review. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) is non-functional due to partisan deadlock, the President’s failure to appoint Commissioners, and under-funding. As a result, for example, the flow of illegal foreign money into our elections through “dark money” channels is not being monitored and no enforcement is occurring. [6]

One often overlooked effect of our money-driven elections is that people of color and their interests are severely underrepresented by elected officials. Ninety percent of elected officials are white, while only 63% of the population is white. The great majority of campaign money at the federal and state levels comes from less than 1% of the population who make donations of over $1,000. The bulk of these donors come from the richest 1% of the population, which is over 90% white. Money is, of course, crucial to election campaigns, with the candidate with more money winning about 90% of the time. The record spending on campaigns, especially by wealthy individuals and corporations unleashed by the Citizens United decision, has exacerbated the political marginalization of people of color. Wealth and political power have been increasingly consolidated in the hands of a very small, very white portion of the population. The bottom line is that people of color are underrepresented among elected officials, among candidates for office, among donors to campaigns, and as having their interests reflected in policies that are enacted. [7]

Given the obscene amounts of money being spent on election campaigns, voters who wish to make good decisions on candidates must now spend more time and effort to wade through the barrage of self-serving ads, misinformation, and noise to ferret out good and truthful information about candidates. If our democracy is to work, this requires all of us to pay more attention and spend more time researching candidates before we make our voting decisions. Voters will need to be consciously skeptical, so they are less swayed by paid media and slick messaging.

Ultimately, we need to change our campaign finance laws to reduce the influence of money and make it easier for voters to discern candidates’ positions on issues. But until that happens, to be informed voters, we will have to wade through the barrage of political advertising and messaging to discern between quality from quantity and differentiate truth from half-truth or outright fiction.

[1]      OpenSecrets.org, retrieved 2/23/20, “2020 presidential race,” Center for Responsive Politics (https://www.opensecrets.org/2020-presidential-race)

[2]      Evers-Hillstrom, K., 2/20/20, “Michael Bloomberg is spending nearly $6 million per day on campaign,” OpenSecrets.org, Center for Responsive Politics (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2020/02/bloomberg-spent-6-million-per-day/)

[3]      Monnay, T., 1/23/20, “Wall Street donor influence shows unprecedented growth 10 years after Citizens United,” OpenSecrets.org, Center for Responsive Politics (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2020/01/wall-street-donor-influence-growth-10-years-citizens-united/

[4]      Evers-Hillstrom, K., 2/14/20, “Why corporate PACs have an advantage,” OpenSecrets.org, Center for Responsive Politics (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2020/02/why-corporate-pacs-have-an-advantage/)

[5]      Massoglia, A., 2/7/20, “ ‘Dark money’ groups steering millions to super PACs in 2020 elections,” OpenSecrets.org, Center for Responsive Politics (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2020/02/dark-money-steers-millions-to-super-pacs-2020/)

[6]      Massoglia, A., 2/7/20, see above

[7]      Lioz, A., 12/14/19, “Stacked deck: How racial bias in our big money political system undermines our democracy and our economy,” Demos (https://www.demos.org/sites/default/files/publications/StackedDeck2_1.pdf)

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