A Fistful of Dollars on the Campaign Trail

 

We have many months before the actual presidential election next November 2012, yet already the web and television news have created a new designation for the incumbent runner: the Billion Dollar Candidate.  Obama’s staff was able to raise an easy $530 million during the 2008 election, and many news outlets – ABC, the Boston Globe and Fox, to name a few – are taking the possibility of this doubling this benchmark seriously.

In the current legal and political landscape, it seems possible; the Supreme Court’s ruling last year in the Citizens United case allows unrestricted amounts of money from corporations big and small to flow freely into the war chests of both Obama and the current assortment of hopeful Republican nominees.  While it would be impressive for any candidate to fundraise over $1 billion for a political campaign, this sum is contingent on the presence of a strong, profit-motivated adulterant in our country’s democratic process. To put it simply: if money talks, novelty-sized pots of money will talk even louder.

Before one considers the real effects of an abstract sum of money, it might be helpful to one’s thought process to break down just what, exactly, $1 billion dollars means. To spend $1 billion would amount to roughly $3.25 being spent for every person in America, or about $4.43 for every person of voting age in America.

Of course, politicians don’t actually spend an even sum on each vote. If one lives in a major metropolitan market, a swing state and/or a state with very early primaries (e.g. Iowa or New Hampshire), one will likely have more money spent on them than if they did not live within one or more of those categories. However, this is not really Obama’s money. Though he will likely put some of his own money into the campaign, the vast majority of every penny spent on the trail will have come from private fundraising.  More importantly, a large percentage of that money is predicted to come from corporate entities who have had the last meager limitation on how much they donate blown away.

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Is there anything wrong with $1 billion?  Not in and of itself.  What is more concerning is the place of money at all in what is supposed to be an unbiased political process, free from outside influence.  For years, political scientists have ground their teeth over the question of whether increased campaign spending correlates with an increase in votes for any one candidate.  In addition, the question of how a campaign stocks its war chest has become increasingly salient in the last few decades, as presidential prospectives are forced to dig deeper to pay for increasingly expensive campaigns.  This has been concurrent with the rise of massive 3rd party donors who exist outside of the traditional funding sources (political parties and Political Action Committees).

To be fair, there is nothing wrong with offering monetary support for a candidate for any elected office (although a few hours spent  phone banking or canvassing never hurt anybody). As one can imagine, running a campaign is an  expensive endeavor, and not all money goes to the crafting of mean, “truthy” advertising. These national political monsters are, ultimately, made up of people who need to eat, sleep, travel, send emails and faxes, make phone calls and do everything else that a normal person does at their job, only 10 times faster and with the governance of our nation at stake. Money also makes it possible for lesser-known candidates from outside of the political mainstream get their ideas heard by the American public (Ron Paul, certainly no ideological Joe Smith, set a record in 2008, raising $6 million dollars in one day).

However, the massive downsides of this fundraising game are too severe to be overlooked.  First, there is a huge difference between me donating $100 to a presidential nominee versus an international corporation donating $1 million to that same nominee.

When I donate my $100, I am doing so as a citizen hoping to promote who I feel is the best person to run the country.  When a corporation donates $1 million, not only has it donated far more than would ever be possible for me, but it has done so in its own self-interest; a business is a business, and there is nothing which suggests a business would ever willingly give away money unless it were, ultimately, in the interests of some greater profit in the future (keyword: PROFIT).

It’s true that people have the capacity for making self-interested decisions, just as corporate entities have the potential to make altruistic decisions.  What separates a citizen from a corporation, however, are the contexts in which they perform their actions, advocacy, fundraising and so forth: In America, a person is a member of a democracy first, while a corporation is a member of a marketplace first. Any work done in the service of a candidate (especially in the form of a donation) is not the act of a citizen, then but of a conglomerate seeking to give itself governmental leverage.

Though spending money on a campaign isn’t a de facto questionable act, when it reaches astronomical levels (cough, 1 billion, cough), it begins to seem as though presidential candidates are attempting to buy a job. If the notion of elections being an auction where the position goes to the highest bidder leaves you unsettled, good.  It ought to.

Although the views and positions of a candidate are always a major part of their appeal (or lack thereof), many campaign dollars are spent attempting to package those views in a pleasantly digestible manner, using some of the marketeer’s oldest tricks of persuasion: key market-tested phrases, obfuscation, generalization and equivocation.  Either that, or its spent on painting the opposition as not fit to run a Chuck E. Cheese, let alone a country.

There may be no easy way to reverse this trend, especially with Citizens United standing, for the time being, as law.  If one wants to negate the effects of money in politics, there is but one method of assuring that dollars spent by a campaign do not directly translate into votes for a candidate, and that is the avenue of self-education.  A careful, considered study of a candidate’s views and positions counteracts the effects of all that money spent to convince you of ‘X,’ and takes away the greatest power that outside agents have on our political process.  In this light, even the act of reading a newspaper is more than just intellectually healthy, it’s a short route to an informed citizenry and a successful democracy.

The Internet was a boon to President Obama’s first Presidential Campaign, fundraising-wise.  Perhaps, this time around, it will prove to have another, better effect, in enabling more people to learn what a candidate of any party actually says and believes, rather than what one hears in a commercial with images of American flags and pie.