The 2016 election has heard a lot of talk
about campaign finance reform and the effect of money in politics. So, does money actually
influence elections? Well, to start, political expenditures have
changed dramatically over the past few elections. In 2000, outside spending on political campaigns
was roughly fifty million dollars. In 2012, it was more than one billion. So what changed?
Well, in January of 2010, the US Supreme Court ruled in a case known as “Citizens United”,
which basically allowed unlimited political spending by individuals and corporations.
The way this works is that although the law sets a limit on contributions directly to
a candidate, there is no limit to indirect candidate contributions. This is where the
commonly used term “Super PAC”, or “political action committee” comes in. In election
context, a Super PAC is an organization which takes in unlimited political donations, usually
in support of a specific candidate. Although they are not allowed to coordinate with the
candidate directly, this rule is clearly, and openly ineffective. This money is spent
on things like events, staff salaries, even health insurance, not unlike a business. But
generally, about 75% of funds go towards direct advertising: mail, radio, television and Internet
ads. So, what does it mean that candidates can
raise unlimited amounts of money? It means they can win elections. And this is distinctly
noticeable in regional elections, even moreso than with Presidential Elections. During the
2012 races in the U.S. House of Representatives, nearly every single winner had raised more
money than their opponent. However, the parallel between election performance
and campaign spending isn’t necessarily causing one or the other. Some economists
point out that successful candidates are not just good statesmen, they’re good politicians.
Those who already have more supporters will naturally raise more money, and voters can
be unsure of spending money on a weak candidate. One analysis by MIT economist Steven D. Levitt
found that raising campaign spending only had a marginal effect on final vote count. And perhaps tellingly, that same year in 2012,
each presidential campaign spent roughly 1 billion dollars each. But when the votes came
in, Obama won with only 51% of the vote against Romney’s 47%. But on the other hand, although popular candidates
may raise more money from their supporters, the majority of money in politics comes from
a very small pool of donors. In fact, according to The Center for Responsive Politics, less
than one quarter of one percent of the US population accounted for two-thirds of the
total amount of federal contributions in 2014. Moreover, only about 32,000 people, or just
one percent of one percent of the population, contributed a billion dollars, or nearly 30%
of the 2014 federal contributions. In the 2016 election, with the exception of Bernie
Sanders, all other candidates have actively sought the support of millionaires and billionaires
to fund their campaigns. Candidate Donald Trump is himself a billionaire. It is clear that there is a concentrated group
of people who are able to dictate which candidates will be better funded, especially within Congress.
But as was seen in the 2012 election, although Mitt Romney’s campaign outspent Obama’s
by about $175 million dollars, he still ended up losing. The real question about money in
politics, is what the one percent of one percent expect in return for their enormous contributions. Luckily, it doesn’t cost a lot of money
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