It's easy to get awed by large sums of money these days. Ted Cruz securing $31 million in a week from a new network of supportive super PACs. One wealthy former Philadelphia Eagles owner pledging to spend $10 million to a super PAC to boost Marco Rubio's campaign. Jeb Bush wowing donors with comments that he raised "tens of millions" for his allied super PAC in his first months of exploring the presidential race. Hillary Clinton's allies floating the possibility of raising as much as $2.5 billion for her campaign. All these campaign developments have generated breathless coverage at how much money is being spent on the presidential campaign, often raising the specter of oligarchs run amok.
But for all the fretting, the fact that it takes fewer donors to sustain a presidential campaign is healthy for democracy because it makes it easier for underdogs to compete. The most important consequence of super PACs is that they lower the barrier to entry, not that they give the wealthiest candidate an insurmountable advantage.
The paradox of this presidential election is that despite the record amount of money that will be poured into the race over the next 18 months, fundraising actually will matter less than in recent presidential campaigns, and the value of retail political talent will be at a premium. Each individual donation matters less when the pot is so large and nearly every viable candidate boasts a number of super-donors, meaning no one uber-wealthy donor can reshape the race in his or her image.
There's massive inflation taking place in the world of campaign finance. The value of a buck—or a million of them—isn't what it used to be. What's most important is the number of candidates that can reach a certain financial level to compete in the early states. Simply racking up eye-popping fundraising numbers isn't as important; there's a diminishing law of return past a certain dollar amount.
In the recent past, not being able to raise enough money meant political extinction unless a candidate scored an upset victory in the early states, generating the free media coverage to sustain them through bigger, more expensive states. Even then, the graveyard of failed presidential candidacies is filled with upstart underdogs who won a small state but were overwhelmed by the financial resources of the establishment favorite. (Think Mike Huckabee in 2008, John McCain in 2000, or Gary Hart in 1984.) Compared with the current liberalized campaign finance system, the old reality was actually less democratic, as it guaranteed an advantage to the wealthiest and best-connected candidates.
That system required even the most grassroots-oriented candidates to spend endless hours at fundraisers so they could raise enough money to compete. That time courting prospective donors sucked up valuable time on the campaign trail reaching out to voters. Since it's now easier to quickly raise the necessary money through sizable super PAC donations, candidates can spend more time focused on voters, instead of donors.
"It used to be you had to do all this laborious fundraising, one fundraiser at a time, and you had to do that a lot. You had to go to a million of these agonizing rubber chicken dinners," said Republican strategist Rick Wilson. "Now you just have to build a relationship with a handful of multimillionaires."
Just look at how the current, crowded Republican primary is already playing out. When Jeb Bush entered the race, the early thinking was that his fundraising ability and connection to lifelong Bush donors would grant him frontrunner status. At the least, his stature in Florida would block the path of his in-state Republican rival, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. But in practice, Rubio plowed ahead with his own presidential campaign, and is securing support from his own group of wealthy donors, including Miami businessman Norman Braman and, potentially, Sheldon Adelson. Despite the shock-and-awe efforts from Jebworld, Rubio leads his mentor in the latest two national GOP primary polls.
If Bush raises $100 million for his super PAC before announcing his campaign, as some Republicans already are speculating, what would it mean in tangible terms? He certainly will be able to build a top-notch voter outreach effort, prepare television ads, continue to hire top talent—and still have lots of money left over. But it won't cost that much to compete in the early primary states, whose results will set the trajectory of the nomination fight. And if he underwhelms early on, that money will become virtually worthless. His entire campaign is premised on electability. Losing that perception of strength would be near-fatal, even with an unlimited amount of cash.
Indeed, if other candidates are able to raise enough money—something even the second-tier candidates are showing they can do—the nomination battle becomes much more of a meritocracy. The main differentiating factor is campaign skill. Who connects best with voters in small settings? Whose message is best in tune with the moment? Who has the political chops to take on Hillary Clinton?
"There will be a point where all the TV ads will be bought in Iowa, there will be no digital inventory left, you can't build more field operations, and that's where campaign performance comes in," Wilson said. "But you need to have that money to make it possible to get to that point."
There's a view among some Republican insiders that the small-state primaries won't mean nearly as much as usual because of the influx of money raising the importance of the big-state, winner-take-all primaries in March. In this view, Bush (or any heavily-financed candidate) can afford to disappoint in Iowa and New Hampshire because he can rebound in the ensuing contests, where expensive media blitzes count more than retail politicking.
Ask Rudy Giuliani how those type of assumptions play out. The reality is that, given the outsized media scrutiny on the small-state primaries, candidates who underwhelm early on will be functionally eliminated—even if they have plenty of financial resources. The winners will be saturated with the invaluable (free) media attention that's impossible to put a price on. The losers won't be able to buy a positive spin on negative results.
"If Jeb's not the frontrunner, his reason for winning becomes very difficult. The only candidates that will survive the first rounds are those whose campaigns are truly a mission and whose message resonates with people," said Republican direct mail consultant Dan Hazelwood. "If you do poorly in the early states, there's no amount of money that would resurrect you. The people who deny it are ignoring the history of presidential campaigns."
It's a refreshing thought: A wide-open competition for the nomination, underdogs with political talent able to take on the establishment frontrunner, and fewer obstacles to raising the necessary amount of money to be viable. That's the new normal in presidential politics. You can thank Citizens United along with a growing roster of wealthy, politically-engaged donors for making that a reality.
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