Politics

Campaign Donations Have Influence, But Not Control, Over Election Outcomes

| by Will Hagle

The 2016 presidential election cycle is already underway, and those with political or financial power have been asserting their influence. One of the most striking stories thus far has been the declaration made by conservative political activists the Koch brothers that they and their network of rich supporters will be spending $889 million on the 2016 presidential and congressional elections. According to Al-Jazeera, that’s more than double what the Koch brothers spent in 2012 and more than the combined $723 million spent by the Democratic and Republican National Committees that same year. The donation group is tantamount to a political party, except it's steered by corporate and business interests rather than public policy.

The Koch brothers’ commitment to massive spending in support of conservative candidates is an unprecedented example of unrestricted campaign financing. Adam Lioz, counsel and senior advisor for public policy organization Demos, has referred to the Koch brothers’ spending as “the legacy of Citizens United.”  “The Supreme Court has carved up the laws that prevent using economic might to buy political power, and the Court’s left us with a democracy where a few billionaires and millionaires are active kingmakers and the size of a citizen’s wallet determines the strength of her voice,” Lioz said to Salon.com. 

Sen. Marco Rubio, one of the frontrunners in the discussion for 2016 presidential nominee, recently expressed his support for the Koch brothers’ unprecedented spending. At an event in Palm Springs, California sponsored by the Koch brothers, Sen. Rubio was posed the following question: “Do you think there is too much influence in our politics by super-wealthy political donors on both sides?” Sen. Rubio answered with another couple of questions: “As opposed to Hollywood or the mainstream media you mean? Or other multibillion dollar entities that try to influence American politics every day?” He then equated political spending with freedom of speech, arguing that donations of any amount are and should be protected under the Constitution. 

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Those comments may seem like conservative rhetoric, but Democrats are just as guilty of abusing loose campaign finance restrictions. The Hillary Clinton-supporting super Pac Ready for Hillary reportedly raised $11 million in 2014, and the 100 largest donors in the midterm elections gave $174 million to Democrats and $100 to Republicans. Money in politics is not just a conservative phenomenon. It is an American phenomenon. And it shows no signs of slowing down. 

Sen. Rubio does, however, raise an interesting point in his comparison of political spending to coverage by Hollywood and the mainstream media. Both entities do, in some form or another, attempt to exert influence over the outcomes of elections. Elizabeth Warren has repeatedly claimed that she has no interest in running for president in 2016, yet the media continues talking about her candidacy as if it is an actual possibility. Pundits have been ranking and discussing potential 2016 candidates since before the 2014 midterms. With this type of coverage, voters are almost constantly being influenced regarding the candidates they should support in 2016. 

It is impossible to say whether any of these attempts at influencing actually have any outcome on voting results. In a study entitled “The Influence of Campaign Contributions on Legislative Policy,” the University of Rochester’s Lynda W. Powell examined the ways in which scholars have attempted to determine the effect campaign financing has on both voters and the legislative process in general. She cites a 2006 study in which it was found “that for every $250,000 a firm gave to the Republicans in the last [2004] election cycle, the firm lost 0.8 percent of market capitalization the week after the Democrats unexpectedly gained majority control.” This demonstrates that electoral results have an impact on the companies or individuals that make donations, but still fails to explain whether those donations have an impact on voters' decisions in the first place. 

Voters are always being swayed one way or the other by both behind-the-scenes donation-based marketing and obvious mainstream media discussion. The motivation for all of that influence is money, and rich people like the Koch brothers have proved that economic power can change the way Americans think about politics and presidential candidates. The loosening of campaign finance regulations in the Citizens United ruling has made it so that influence can be exerted as much as possible, but Hollywood and the mainstream media would be doing the same thing in a different way nonetheless. No one can even dream of being nominated without tons of money, and the average American wouldn't consider voting for a candidate that's not constantly being discussed in the mainstream media. The one hopeful thing about that sad state of modern American politics is that the power still ultimately lies in the hands of the voters. No one truly knows the extent at which campaign donations and political media coverage actually influences voters, and as long as citizens remain as open-minded as possible that control wont be conceded to the rising trend of campaign donations.