You often hear more lefty types bemoan the influence of money in our politics. They complain about “PAC money,” typically of the corporate type, and conservatives deride “interest groups” spending in elections. The idea is that some sort of big-money boogeyman is buying off our politicians, and forcing them to take positions “against the people.” I think they’re onto something with their critiques of money in politics, but not at all in the way they believe.
Campaign donors, including myself, are more motivated partisans. Increasingly, they’re also more ideological than the rest of society. People who will write over a chunk of their money to a political campaign are generally more extreme in their policy views. Moderate people, no matter how rich, are not as likely to write a check to a candidate, unless they find a candidate personally appealing for some reason. So the donor pool is more right or left than the country is as a whole, by a dramatic margin.
Why does it matter so much what the donors think? Well, for one thing, campaigns are getting more and more expensive. Due to some of the USPS problems in recent years, the price of bulk mail has went higher. The price of printing the mail, or “palm cards” that you hand out, door-to-door, have also increased. Television has not been getting cheaper either, between the production and the cost-per-point valuation on a spot. While some people think digital is the “great cheaper hope,” that is increasingly untrue. Running a campaign is getting more expensive every year, and that’s not even taking into account the cost of hiring good staff, which isn’t getting cheaper, particularly with Democratic campaigns trying to provide health care, and the equivalent of $15 an hour, not to mention unionization happening as we speak.
Now if you’re wealthy enough to fund your campaign out of your pocket, this may not effect you. If you’re not, you have to get out and raise a lot of money. That’s not as easy in many places as it used to be, both because of formal and informal rules. Federal campaigns are limited to roughly $2,700 a donation from an individual. Unions are under far more limitations than they used to be. You can’t take corporate checks federally, or in most states. With less ability to collect the giant checks to fund a campaign, candidates have to go out to the masses and seek funds they didn’t have to before. Do you think that moderates and swing voters are writing over their money to fund these campaigns? It’s not likely. In other words, candidates have to appeal to the more wealthy and affluent voters in their base, who tend to have views further from the political middle.
There is another way, but it isn’t going to drive candidates more towards the middle of the electorate- get someone to fund a “Super PAC” or an independent expenditure for you. Chances are, you’re going to have to appeal to rich people, single-issue groups, and interest groups in your political party. For instance, maybe a labor union or the Koch Brothers can fund an independent expenditure for you, but that means you’re going to be 100% in agreement with them. In other words, someone else will spend big on your behalf, provided that you are taking the position of their group or organization. There aren’t many “centrist” examples of groups like this.
Basically the need for campaign funds is driving our political parties more and more towards their ideological poles, because that’s where they find campaign financing. As campaigns get more expensive, and funding a campaign doesn’t get any easier, this will continue. My solution to this would be to loosen the rules on how you can fundraise as a candidate, but tighten the rules on reporting and make things more transparent. Given the Supreme Court’s precedent on money in politics, and the inability to make media give out “free” advertising to candidates, this is the only way to weaken the stranglehold that the political extremes have on the issues we are debating right now. Otherwise, we’re stuck in perpetual political war, as is.