Political Competition Hits Historic Low: Part Two

Money and Politics

(This three part series focuses on four foundational election practices that limit political competition and voter choice – methods not meant to be permanent and adopted in the 18th century when democracy was new, populations small, and candidates, parties and people eligible to vote few. Part One looked at Winner-Take-All plurality voting and Partisan Redistricting. Parts Two and Three consider Campaign Finance and the Electoral College.)

In 1895 Ohio political boss and U.S. Senator Mark Hanna famously said, “There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money and I can’t remember what the second one is.”

Democracies today have since sought to create a level playing field for competing candidates and to mitigate the undue influence, or appearance of influence, of large donors and special interests.
Here in the U.S. reform efforts have made gradual progress. This changed in 2010 when a divided Supreme Court in its Citizens United decision  radically changed the path of reform – sanctifying campaign donations as “free speech”. The decision unleashed a rising tide of paid political speech that is anything but free and allows moneyed interests to drown out or keep out the speech of the others.

At the beginning the money problem in U.S. elections was free beer – candidates bribing voters with libations. Mark Hanna changed that in 1886. He tapped the newfound wealth of industrialists to inject 16 million dollars into William McKinley’s campaign.  The campaign outspent populist William James Bryant 25-1. President McKinley went on to pass legislation benefiting his donors. Shortly after Teddy Roosevelt seized upon the danger of the undue influence of money to advocate measures to keep out special interest money and facilitate competition. Since then we’ve seen restrictions on giving by corporations and unions, contribution limits, donor disclosure, and local models for small donor driven, publicly supported financing.

It’s not that money buys elections, though the candidate with a financial advantage wins more than 90% of the time. Campaign dollars flow to buy influence and access, ever more so today given the absence of limits on the size, source or timing of donations. This discourages challengers and new candidates,suppresses competition and gives an advantage to incumbents who have access to sell.

  • The cost of running:  The rising costs of running are becoming prohibitive for new candidates, compelling those in office to spend an inordinate time with large donors. In 2016 the median costs of winning a contested seat were :
    – House: $1.7 million. Equivalent to raising $16,300 each week for an entire two year term
    – Senate: $11.5 million. Equivalent to raising $37,000 each week for an entire six year term
  • War chest advantage: With donors giving actively during legislative sessions, incumbents can build up campaign war chests that scare many candidates from considering a challenge – leaving only a small number of the most vulnerable seats contested.
  • Spending advantage: Money has diminishing returns as the amounts get larger. Still in 2016 among the few seats that had any competition, House candidates with 2-1 spending advantage won 96% of the time.  Every Senate candidate with a 1.5-1 spending advantage won.  The data is similar for state legislative races and local office. Thousands of qualified candidates without access to personal wealth or large donors are less likely to run.  Being good at fundraising becomes a requirement for public office.

Solution: Small Donor Driven Public Campaigns
A solution starts by viewing elections as a public good not private venture that entails access to large donors, year-round fundraising, and the built in advantage of an incumbent. It needs common sense rules that create an opportunity for a qualified candidate to run a competitive campaign. It needs provisions to reduce the influence or corrupting appearance of special interest money in politics.

The most promising systems are small donor driven systems such as those enacted in New York City, Los Angeles and Portland – or, to a limited degree, public funding used statewide in Connecticut and Maine. This year Seattle will test out a small donor voucher systems where residents 18 and over get four $25 vouchers to give to the qualified candidate of their choice. The systems are “voluntary”. Candidates are not required to join but the incentives are strong and effective enough so most candidates will participate.

  • Candidates collect small donations – less than $25 on average but not more than $100 or $200 – from a broad number of supporters. Supporters become “stakeholders” and many go on to volunteer or contribute to their campaigns in other ways.
  • Small donations are matched at 3-1 to 6-1 for qualifying candidates who demonstrate public support by getting a threshold of signatures and small donations.
  • Candidates agree to overall contribution and spending limits and thus concern themselves more with ensuring a fundraising floor to run a competitive campaign.
  • Candidates agree not to accept donations from certain types of donors like registered lobbyists and to participate in public debates

In addition two other features of campaign finance systems are:

  1. Disclosure: Transparency of donations and spending informs the public and provides some degree of accountability. This is useful by itself, but is not a solution to facilitating political competition or reducing the corrupting influence of money on politics. It does expose the latter to help efforts to understand and change the system.
  2. Free or Subsidized Media: More than 140 countries provide some level of free or subsidized access to qualified candidates and parties to TV and radio. Candidates can use new media forms, but still need some equity in traditional media sources as part of a longer term solution.


Learn More
•    How It Works: New York’s Campaign Finance System  here
•    Portland, OR Enacts Small Donor Public Financing  here
•    Fresh Start: The Impact of Public Financing in Connecticut  here
•    IDEA’s International Database of Political Campaign Finance  here
•    Seattle’s Democracy Voucher Program   here