Lee Drutman on Why Money Still Matters

At the Monkey Cage:

“Once again, politics proved to be more complicated than a simple bidding market in which the side that spends more money gets the prize: Money did not seem to matter in the sense that it determined the outcomes. But candidates certainly behaved as if it mattered, which gave – and will continue to give – money a great deal of importance: most of all by empowering those who give large amounts of it.”

This is entirely fair, and I appreciate the “still” indicating that this is not so much a new feature as a continuing problem. Drutman doesn’t do any comparison; he doesn’t say that money matters more now than it did before, although he does hint that by emphasizing the magnitude of money spent rather than the proportion of GDP. So Drutman’s analysis is entirely compatible with the claims made by Martin Gilens that there has always been a tight connection between affluence and influence in American politics. So it seems he might be willing to agree that neither Citizens United nor the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act it struck down have made a dent in that overarching tendency.

Probably not, though: Drutman has a few weirdly unrealistic moments, like his worry about “dark money” that gets spent before the reporting periods kick in. He even says this is the worst it’s been “since the pre-FECA days,” without mentioning that that money would have been undisclosed under FECA, too, if it was spent more than twenty days before the election. Supposedly, this was because these early expenditures don’t count as “campaigning” because so few people are paying attention to an election more than a few weeks away. D’oh! Who could have foreseen our year-long campaigns?

Still, I think he’s basically got it right: money in elections dictates who runs, and so long as politicians think it matters, it probably matters. I’d quibble about how it matters: so long as money is so prevalent, particular donors won’t be able to dictate a politicians’ particular policy choices. That is more easily achieved in other ways. But fundraising time is crowding-out cross-cutting policy deliberations, crowding-out moderation (especially in the Republican Party, but perhaps soon among Democrats), and crowding-out constituent services. Great quote:

As Rahm Emanuel once put it: “The first third of your campaign is money, money, money. The second third is money, money, money. And the last third is votes, press, and money.”

But I do wonder: how much was Bruce Springsteen’s endorsement worth to the Obama administration? What was the market value of all those free concerts? What about the team of social science experts who gave their services to the campaign for free? How do those get reported? Isn’t that intellectual and cultural capital worth something, too? And isn’t it part of how the cognitive capture of influence by affluence works on the left?

Just a reminder here of Jill Fisch’s paper “How do Corporations Play Politics? The Fedex Story” which puts the lie to the pre-Citizens United Golden Age of campaign finance.





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