“Does Big Money Still Matter? You Bet It Does”

Eliza Newlin Carney in TAP:

Good-government advocates are “oblivious to the failure of ‘big money’ to dictate the race,” wrote Bradley Smith, chairman of the Center for Competitive Politics, in a Wall Street Journal commentary headlined “That’s Odd, ‘Big Money’ Isn’t Buying This Election.” One of the contest’s “unexpected surprises,” wrote New America senior fellow Lee Drutman, is how well Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have done with such little backing from wealthy donors.

It’s easy to see why billionaire donors don’t look so influential anymore. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and his super PAC spent $14.9 million on the Iowa caucuses, but won just 5,238 voters (a mere 2.8 percent of the total GOP vote) and a single delegate. That added up to $2,845 per vote—a dismal showing that U.S. News & World Report dubbed “by far the worst bang-for-the-buck performance” of any GOP candidate.

But the failure of Bush or any other big spender to win an election says little about the actual role that money plays in politics and—perhaps more important—in policy-making. As a long list of self-financed millionaire candidates can attest, having the biggest wallet is no guarantee of success. And as election lawyer and author of the recent book Plutocrats United Richard Hasen has noted, the real issue is not just how political money boosts candidates, but how it helps big donors win the tax breaks, contracts, and policies they seek.

Also overlooked in the argument that money doesn’t matter is the ever-growing role that millionaire and billionaire donors are playing in elections other than the race for the White House. Super PACs, which may raise unlimited contributions if they don’t coordinate with candidates, are wading aggressively into not just House and Senate contests, but into gubernatorial, state legislative, mayoral, city council, and even school board races.
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