Soros: Big money can’t buy elections – influence is something else
Five years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, public attention remains focused on the vast sums of money washing around the U.S. political system.
President Barack Obama marked the Jan. 21 anniversary of the ruling with a statement decrying the decision’s corrosive effect. Days later, Charles and David Koch announced plans to spend nearly $1 billion on the 2016 elections.
I’ve been an active political donor for almost two decades. In recent years, I’ve directed much of my support to a campaign that aims, ironically, to reduce the influence of money in politics. It’s given me an understanding of what is really happening with all that money and what role Citizens United had in unleashing it.
If we’re going to move beyond disgust and start talking seriously about solutions, here are five important lessons to keep in mind:
Money doesn’t buy elections
One common trope in attacking Citizens United is that big-money interests are now buying U.S. elections. It’s a simple and intuitive concept that plays off trigger words like “billionaire” and “corporation.”
Alas, it’s not true.
Yes, money is an absolute necessity for running a campaign, and it’s hard to win without a sufficient supply of it. Candidates like David Brat, a virtual unknown who spent less than $200,000 to defeat the wellfunded House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in 2014, are anomalies. But once you have enough money to communicate with voters and be competitive, more is not all that valuable.
Even doubling campaign spending, according to a study cited by the conventional-wisdom debunkers at Freakonomics, translates into only a 1 percent change in voting results. In close elections, other factors such as candidate quality, campaign tactics or even the weather on Election Day are just as likely to be determinative.
It’s easy to be misled by statistics showing that the candidate who spends more wins in the vast majority of elections. But when approximately 90 percent of congressional elections are not competitive, the causality tends to run the other direction. It’s nearly impossible for a noncompetitive candidate to raise as much money as a sure winner.
This relationship, or more precisely nonrelationship, between outspending and winning has long been true. In the Super PAC era, competitive elections are well past the saturation point at which incremental dollars can make a meaningful difference.
In 2012, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and his supporters outspent team Obama in the aggregate — $1.2 billion versus $1.1 billion. Yet Obama could probably have spent several hundred million dollars less and still won.
This false paradigm inevitably leads to stories about how big money didn’t, in fact, buy elections. In 2012, Sheldon Adelson, the Republican casino magnate, was the biggest loser. In 2014, it was pin the tail on Democrat Tom Steyer. That, in turn, leads the likes of New York Times columnist David Brooks to write that all this money isn’t such a big deal after all and ignore a second basic reality of campaign money.
Money always wins
While money doesn’t buy elections, it does buy politicians, whether they intend to be bought or not. Anyone who has tried to sell a product, or otherwise asked someone for something, understands the subtle pull these interactions have. If politicians were immune to that pull, former Representative Barney Frank noted, they “would be the only people in the history of the world who, on a regular basis, took money from perfect strangers and made sure it had no effect on them.”
The quest for campaign cash suffuses political life. Candidates in competitive elections can spend more than 60 percent of their time raising money.
Chairpersons of congressional committees pay tithing to party committees based on how valuable the seat is for fundraising. And leadership and fundraising are deeply intertwined. It’s no accident that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) are the largest donors.
Though Adelson didn’t get the results he sought in 2012, he was still a winner. Just as Steyer was in 2014. Each got virtually unfettered access to party leadership, and their concerns received special consideration.
In noncompetitive elections, the “winners” are far less public and the impact more insidious. These candidates get most of their funding from PACs, lobbyists and other institutional purveyors of influence. When the pull of salesmanship is institutionalized at that scale, any subtlety is lost.
The real losers in all this are ordinary voters — the 99.6 percent who don’t make reportable contributions to candidates. They understand that their government is not working for them and want more from their democracy than an argument among rich people.
Dark money is secret — except when it’s not
The dramatic rise of “dark money” since Citizens United has been well documented. Contributors can spend virtually unlimited sums to influence election outcomes without disclosing their identity, a practice so indefensible that even Justice Antonin Scalia thinks it’s wrong.
But the secret is selectively kept.
In 2012, Adelson spent an estimated $153 million trying to unseat Obama — almost $100 million more than disclosed to the Federal Election Commission. How do we know? Two political operatives who worked on the effort leaked information to a reporter nearly a month after the election.
Had Romney won, we may never have learned how much Adelson spent. But you can be assured that a Romney administration and every consultant running a Republican campaign would have known.
Though dark money is used less to support Democrats — setting up an unfortunate partisan dynamic surrounding essential transparency reforms that have overwhelming bipartisan support — the same principle applies.
Citizens United changed the world, but not the way you think
Almost anything contributors can do with money in elections after Citizens United was possible before the ruling.
Citizens United and the decisions that followed it have made it easier to spend money; transaction costs have dropped and some legal uncertainties have been removed. But the decision wasn’t the sea change it is made out to be.
In 2004, for example, a group called America Coming Together (with which I was affiliated) spent more than $100 million in support of then-Senator John Kerry’s bid for president. That same year Bob Perry and a group of Republican donors spent tens of millions on the Swift Boat Veterans ad campaign to torpedo him.
Even for corporate and union spending, the issue specifically addressed in Citizens United, the legal effect was not that dramatic. The week before the ruling, in fact, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, largely funded by corporate interests, spent more than $1 million to support Scott Brown in a special U.S. Senate election in Massachusetts.
The real dramatic impact came from the Supreme Court’s blessing of this type of engagement. Since the ruling, spending millions on elections has increasingly come to be seen as an acceptable form of political activity, at least among those wealthy enough to do so.
In 2012, it was Adelson and Jeff Katzenberg, chief executive of DreamWorks, who joined the Kochs and my father George Soros as boldface names in political spending. In addition to Steyer in 2014, there were former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Joe Ricketts and Paul Singer, among others. By 2016, a million-dollar political contribution may be no more notable than a second home.
It was all possible before Citizens United. It just wasn’t done.
You can’t get money out
There is no idyllic pre-Citizens United era to return to. Many advocates who understand this seek to overturn the court’s 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision, which protected political spending under the First Amendment. They would do so, however, at our collective peril.
The First Amendment protects every citizen’s right to criticize the government and U.S. officials, especially during political campaigns. To overturn Buckley would be to allow Congress the right to regulate political spending.
Even if one disregards the possibility of the truly nefarious — Congress passing a law to criminalize unwelcome criticism - the possibility of politicians crossing party lines to protect their collective incumbency has too much precedent to ignore. Most gerrymandering does just that.
Regulating political spending always requires drawing a line between what counts as political and what does not. Wherever lines are drawn, clever lawyers and political operatives will find ways to be effective working on the “right” side of them. To eliminate private spending in elections would require setting limits that no American should be comfortable with. Do away with contributions and cap candidate spending, for example, and outside groups would form. Restrict what outside groups can say and do, and you might also talk about monitoring the editorial power of the press.
Fortunately, confronting these realities leads to a much clearer path than railing against Citizens United. The solutions are simple, proven and entirely consistent with even the current Supreme Court’s reading of the First Amendment.
Private money always wins because there is no other game in town. To change that requires creating a viable alternative path to victory that does not leave candidates beholden to their campaign funders. Even better would be to make them beholden to their constituents.
One way forward is the Government by the People Act, recently reintroduced in the House of Representatives with more than 140 cosponsors. It would provide candidates with funds that match small contributions from constituents.
A version of this worked for 40 years in presidential elections. It supported the winning candidacies of three Republicans (Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush) and two Democrats (Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton).
It’s still effective in states and municipalities that have invested in similar systems. It works as long as there is enough funding so that one candidate doesn’t have so much more money that it creates a decisive advantage.
When the presidential campaign-funding system failed to meet that test in 2008, Obama opted out. Unless it is updated to provide enough funds to run a modern campaign, the system, which is still on the books, will never be used again.
To make citizen-funding work, rules must be implemented and enforced effectively enough to keep up with the lawyers and political operatives who will inevitably seek to skirt them. At the federal level, that means redesigning the Federal Election Commission.
The commission is now composed of three Democrats and three Republicans, with the consent of four members required to take any action. Experts offer a laundry list of reforms, but just changing it to a seven-member panel with no more than two of them affiliated with a political party, would dramatically alter its function.
The selective secrecy in election spending also must end. This could be easily accomplished under existing statutory authority by either the Federal Election Commission or the Internal Revenue Service. They could ensure that the sources of all political funds were disclosed to the public — not just to the politicians who benefit. Obviously, congressional legislation could help.
The result of these changes would be a political environment in which the role of private money is resolved by creating a meaningful alternative to big contributors and big-spending Super PACs.
Because the real problem with money in politics is not that there is too much of it — it’s that there is only one source. This gives that incredibly small fraction of us who provide the vast majority of funding enormous influence and access.
Eliminate that monopoly, and you have dramatically changed U.S. politics in ways that overturning Citizens United never would.