The Elections Money Can Buy

By Andrej Mrevlje |

On September 14th, Nate Silver, the pollster and founder of the blog FiveThirtyEight, tweeted that, “Without those states, Clinton has 273 electoral votes, but there is no margin for error. Lose any one of NH/PA/WI/CO/VA and Trump is POTUS.”

In other words, according to FiveThirtyEight’s poll, Hillary Clinton will win enough electoral votes (273) to win the elections. But that’s barely over the 270 that are needed to win the presidency. So if Clinton loses just one of the five states — New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Colorado or Virginia — then the next president of the United States will be Donald Trump.

This sounds like hazardous prediction, since there are many more ways to win or lose this election than Silver’s tweet indicated. However, the tweet’s message is quite positive for Clinton, since it implies that, nearly two months before the elections, her prospects for getting the necessary number of electoral votes are looking good.

But overall, Nate Silver’s message was that the presidential race is still very tight. And the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) took the last part of the tweet and started a panic campaign, trying to mobilize voters and potential supporters by using the broadest mailing list possible. Now, I can’t vote in the U.S., but as reporter, I followed the presidential campaigns in 2004 and 2008, and I probably gave my email address to some of the committee people I met on the campaign trail. This is probably why I got bombarded with alarming messages from the DCCC.

The DCCC campaign continued with more and more quotes from Nate Silver, describing Trump’s momentum and the downward trend for Democrats. “We will lose everything if you do not contribute some money for our campaign.” Initially anonymous party appeals then escalated with the names of big shots in the party: first Nancy Pelosi, then Joe Biden, Michelle Obama and finally the president himself, begging for people to chip any amount of money that would help to defeat Trump.

The Associated Press benevolently explained the president’s mobilization in campaign as a generous act geared towards the Democrats lulled into apathy by the uninspiring presidential election:

He’s not just validating Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton or holding up his record as a reason for voters to keep the White House in his party’s hands. Obama wants his supporters to see anything less than a vote for Clinton as a sign of disrespect to the nation’s first black president.

“I will consider it a personal insult, an insult to my legacy, if this community lets down its guard and fails to activate itself in this election,” Obama said Saturday during an impassioned address to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s annual dinner. “You want to give me a good send-off? Go vote.”

While the president might be seriously engaged in helping the not-very-popular Hillary Clinton to win this election, hoping to prevent the unpredictable brand manager Donald Trump from settling in the White House, there is more to this campaign than just politicians. As observed by Lynn Parramore, who cites political scientist Thomas Ferguson of the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET) as a good source of political information, wealthy individuals and businesses strategically invest in political parties for the biggest pay off. “Ferguson has been the man to seek when you really wanted to know how elections work and who controls them,” writes Parramore, who further describes the work of Ferguson and his associates:

Now the researchers have turned their attention on political money in Congressional elections in a new paper for (INET).

They begin with a simple question: What are the facts about total campaign spending and election outcomes? As they write: “We can pool all spending by and on behalf of candidates and then examine whether relative, not absolute, differences in total outlays are related” to the differences in votes received by the major political parties.

Their answer is stunning: there is strong, direct link between what the major political parties spend and the percentage of votes they win – far stronger than all the airy dismissals of the role of money in elections would ever lead you to think, and certainly stronger than anything you read in your poli sci class.

Not only in 2012, but in every election for which the data exists (from 1980 to 2012), Ferguson, Jorgensen, and Chen found that the graphs came out with neat, straight lines, with minimal scattering of dots. The link is clear: when the Democrats spend more than Republicans, their candidates win. When Republicans spend more than Democrats, they win.

So how much does it cost to win elections in America? According to CheatSheet:

Elections are getting more and more expensive. According to the New York Times, a record $6.3 billion was spent on presidential and congressional elections in 2012, and it’s estimated that spending will be more like $7.5 to $8 billion for 2016. That’s an outrageous amount of money, and what’s worse: We don’t know where a lot of it is coming from because the Securities and Exchange Commission still does not have a law requiring corporations to disclose their political spending. And most politicians are just fine with this.

The American public, on the other hand, is not. Last fall, activists gathered to protest the SEC’s failure to move forward with a rule that would require the disclosure of such spending. After the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision loosened campaign finance rules and brought forth millions of dollars of undisclosed political spending by businesses and individuals, many began petitioning the SEC, arguing that the commission is meant to protecting investors, not politicians.

And who can afford to pay the price of a ticket to the White House? According to the Intercept, an investigative publication owned by Pierre Omidyar, there are 106 American billionaires who could cover all the expenses of a presidential campaign without a problem — including Omidyar himself. It’s a matter of cost and profit the Intercept suggests:

Two billion dollars, the estimated cost of this year’s presidential election, is big money, but it is not huge money. Two billion is one-tenth of NASA’s annual budget, one-twentieth of the Harvard endowment, one-thirtieth of the personal wealth of Warren Buffett. Buffett is number two on the 2015 Forbes list of 106 Americans who hold personal fortunes of $5 billion or more, the Club of 106. These billionaires are rich enough to pay for the campaigns of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump and still have $3 billion left over.

At least four of the members of Club 106 (Buffett, the Kochs, Bloomberg) have openly voiced their thoughts on who should be president. Five members (Soros, Simons, Cohen, Ellison, Bloomberg) are among the top 25 donors to the outside groups that have poured tens of millions of dollars into the campaign. Seven members (Bezos, Zuckerberg, Page, Brin, Murdoch, the Newhouses, Bloomberg) own large media and internet companies — Amazon, the Washington Post, Facebook, Google, Fox News, the New York Post, the Wall Street Journal, Condé Nast, Bloomberg — with the power to shape public opinion. (By way of disclosure, an eighth member, Pierre Omidyar, founded The Intercept’s parent company, First Look Media.)

For the Club of 106, elections are a game they can easily afford to play. One vehicle of choice is the Super PAC. In the 2012 election cycle, the top 100 Super PAC donors accounted for 3.7 percent of the donor population but gave 80 percent percent of the money, a structure that roughly mirrors the makeup of U.S. society as a whole, where one percent of the population holds half of the total wealth. The ratio will likely tilt even further toward the Club of 106 during the 2016 cycle, thanks to two recent court decisions — McCutcheon and Citizens United — that loosened limits on individual donors and opened the door for Super PACs to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money.

Trump, borrowing from the rhetoric of Clinton’s former rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders, likes to say that the electoral system is “rigged” by big money, and that he, a billionaire, is the only candidate wealthy enough to transcend it. “I’m self-funding,” he said at one point, which isn’t exactly true. “No one owns me.”

It is obvious that this political reality does not inspire political enthusiasm among Americans. The divide between voters and the easily bought and compromised political class is enormous. As a Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton has a detailed plan for campaign finance reform. It includes overturning the Citizens United decision that set Super PACs loose, matching public funds for small donors, and ending “secret unaccountable money in politics.”

But the question is whether — if elected — she will actually step on the crack and dismantle the present money machine that lubricates U.S. politics. Clinton has gotten where she is now with a lot of outside financial support, as Matthias Schwartz explains in the aforementioned Intercept article.

It is no wonder that somebody like Bernie Sanders, who called this year’s elections rigged, almost managed to spark a political revolution in the country. But he was defeated in the primaries, paving the way for the first woman to become an American president. The American political system is impeded by its existing electoral system, which turns the elections into one big political circus. It’s not possible and not responsible for such a big and important country to be governed only half the time, due to the insane election process. The long and blaring election campaigns are impeding the government and making people stupid.  

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