YP US Campaign Finance … Because American Government Is Still Worth Paying For
pubished in the Yorkshire Post 6 November 2012
During the 1992 US elections, I was privileged to observe the campaign of Congressman William Natcher in Kentucky.
Mr Natcher disdained all modern media and employed no staff. He campaigned entirely through personal appearances on the steps of each court house in his district, where he gave a short speech and shook the hand of any voter who wanted to greet him. He spent only $1000 on his campaign, and won handily, as he had done ever since 1952. (Equally frugal in Congress, Mr Natcher employed no staff there and answered letters by hand, like Thomas Jefferson.)
Mr Natcher died two years later, the last Congressman elected by traditional methods. By contrast, the current Speaker, Mr John Boehner, has already spent over $15 million on his re-election. So has another prominent Republican, Michele Bachman. This year’s Senate race in Massachussetts has so far cost the candidates $33 million, the one in Texas $37 million. These sums are pocket change to the Presidential candidates: Mitt Romney has raised over $500 million and Barack Obama (with the advantage of incumbency and no serious primary challengers) over $650 million. [Final accounting – close to $1 billion apiece]
The non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics estimates that total American election spending this year will reach $6 billion, a sum greater than the GDP of 61 countries. This would be 120 times greater than the cost of the British general election of 2010, and 23 times greater if expressed as cost-per-voter. Of course, Americans vote for many more offices (from President to local sheriff) than Britons choosing one MP. In 2008 over a million Americans ran for something on election day, compared to 4134 candidates in our 2010 General Election. To put their figure into further perspective, Americans last year spent around $10 billion on romantic fiction (generally less of a fantasy than the output of their politicians).
Nonetheless, the American elections should warn Britain of the dangers of letting the cost of democracy get out of control. They make American candidates dependent on major donors. In 2004 the insurgent Democrat Governor Howard Dean ran a dramatic campaign for the Presidency on small donations through the Internet. Some optimists suggested that this would become the new model of campaign finance. Small Internet donors are important (Obama has over $160 million from contributors of $200 or less) but they have not replaced the big battalions. Over three quarters of Obama’s funds derive from major donors, and Romney is even more dependent on them: over 80 per cent of his cash comes from fewer than 10 per cent of his individual supporters.
The dominance of major donors was boosted further in 2010 by the Supreme Court. In the Citizens United case the Court decided that the right to free speech allowed individuals, corporations or unions to channel unlimited funds into political campaigns so long as these were not directly influenced by any candidate. This unleashed the so-called super-PACs, political action committees spending money for and against candidates and causes with minimal accounting requirements. So far, super-PACs have spent nearly $250 billion, about 70 per cent on negative campaigning, and most PACs are pro-Republican. The biggest, Restore Our Future, has spent over $82 million on Romney and Republican candidates, three times more than the largest pro-Democrat PAC, Priorities USA Action.
American campaign spending now ensures that every Presidency is pre-paid. The winner takes office heavily indebted and beholden to major donors. This is nothing new (American democracy invented the “spoils system” in the nineteenth century) but donors now demand more for their money. Previously, they might have been paid off with an ambassadorship or a symbolic post in the administration. Now donors expect to control swathes of government policy. In 2008 the American financial sector gave significantly more to Obama than to his Republican rival John McCain. They were backing the likely winner and insuring themselves against the threat of major reforms. Obama chose one of their own as his Treasury Secretary and his modest reforms disappointed many of his voters. Nonetheless, Obama infuriated the financial sector, which has overwhelmingly favoured Mitt Romney and expects wholesale deregulation from him in office.
Some donors expect Presidents to tailor policy to their personal foibles as well as their financial interests. The biggest single Republican donor is the gambling magnate Sheldon Adelson. He would derive major financial benefit from a number of declared Republican policies, but his main priority is to secure uncritical support for Israel (a country which actually costs him money).
Could British governments become as dependent on big donors as the Americans? We have some defences the Americans lack. The Electoral Commission controls spending by “third parties” (our PACs). We have caps on candidate spending and a ban on television advertising (a huge expense in American elections). However, as demonstrated by Lord Ashcroft and the cash-for-honours scandals, there are still many ways for big donors to seek influence in our political system.
The biggest difference between us could be deeply unflattering: unlike the Americans, Britain’s richest people and major interest groups may have decided that their government and legislature are not worth buying.