Money and Campaigns

(Go Barney! - promoted by David)

In a response to Charley’s post about bribery, Will brings up public financing of campaigns.  Often referred to as “clean elections”, public financing means putting political campaigns back into the public sector.  Instead of the current privatized system, under which candidates must raise money privately to fund their campaigns, campaigns would be paid for at least in part by public money.

Campaigns cost a lot of money, and there are two ways candidates can fund their campaigns:

  1. They already have enough money and pay for it themselves
  2. Getting contributions from people and organizations who want to give them

It’s #2 that’s the problem, because it has several distorting and corrosive influences on politics that are unavoidable.


Ideally, we’d like candidates to spend their time talking to voters, and measure their success by how many people they can attract, to vote for them and to volunteer for them.  So the first problem is, contributions are a distorted measure of support.  Ten people can give $25 each, one person can give $500, and that one person counts twice as much as all ten of them combined.  It may be because he cares more, but more likely, it’s just because he has a lot more money.  Despite this, money is a necessary measure of support under the current system, and does determine viability.  So candidates are valued not just by the number of their supporters, or the motivation of their supporters, but also disproportionately by the wealth of their supporters.

That’s a distortion in and of itself, that selects for candidates in a way that doesn’t favor the better ones; but it goes further than that: it’s also discriminatory.  The first source of contributions for any candidate is family & friends.  A good candidate will also have done some sort of work that has built up a support network – community organizing, founding a project or initiative, etc.  There are a lot of community ties that go into forming the network of people a candidate can raise money from.  Some of these are wealthy, and some are downright poor.  In oversimplied terms, the candidate from the poor neighborhood will have a much harder time raising the same money as the candidate from the rich neighborhood in the same district.  (I’m oversimplifying, of course – for example, it’s not just a geographical split)

A related problem is this: Candidates who aren’t wealthy need to spend a significant portion of their time asking for money instead of talking to voters.  This takes away from the connection between voters & candidates that we should be getting out of campaigns, and it’s also not the reason most candidates run for office.  Good candidates, the ones we want, run because they want to talk to voters, not because they want to ask for money.  But private financing of campaigns dissuades many of them from running, because they’re going to have to.

All of these are distortions inherent in the system.  They’re selection forces that affect who runs for office, and how likely they are to get press or get to the ballot, yet these are selection forces that aren’t selecting for better candidates.

In addition to distortion, there’s corrosion, which is probably an even bigger problem: Since candidates are required to raise money pivately, they’re all bought by someone.  Some of the better candidates can get away with being bought by the public at large, but especially when you get into races for higher office (US House, Governor, US Senate, and President), the pressure is on.  Candidates who play the quid pro quo game with more “efficient”, bigger donors, will outplay those who decline to play that game.  They’ll be able to afford their campaigns, without spending all their time raising money.  Other candidates may have to spend much more time asking for money, and they may still not raise enough.  It’s a system that selects for the more “bought” candidates.

The only real solution is public financing, which can come either in the form of money to campaigns, or public campaign infrastructure (for example, free media time), or both.  Support for candidates should be based on measures of how much support they have, that are not distorted by the relative wealth of their supporters.  And no candidate should be forced to pander to the most efficient donors in order to be able to run a viable campaign.  Wealthy candidates can always opt out, but many other candidates cannot.


In his comment, Will presented what I think is a false equivalence:

“A candidate is either rich and self-financed, or he is a person of average means and financed by an outside entity or entities, which therefore have a measure of influence over him.”

By equating money with “influence”, he framed the debate about public financing as one over whether candidates should be “influenced” by anyone (or anything).  The obvious answer to that is that of course they will be influenced.  It’s a tautology that evades the more important question of what influences make for better candidates, better government, and better democracy.  Not all influences are equivalent.  After all, votes are a form of “influence”, and wouldn’t we look ridiculous arguing for abolishing their corrupting influence?

Clean elections advocates aren’t trying to remove all influences from politics.  Look past that reduction to the absurd, to see our real point: Votes are the right kind of influence for a democratic government; private contributions are the wrong kind of influence.

The financing of Democracy should not be privatized, any more than the financing of our court system, our military, or our police protection.  We use public money to hire lawyers to make sure every defendant gets a fair shake.  Why don’t we use public money to make sure every serious candidates gets a fair chance to reach the voters?  It’s an investment in better government.

And so, despite Will’s opinion, “the campaign of the common man, brave and independent,” does happen – in states that have public financing, like Maine and Vermont.  Their democracy is healthier for it.

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17 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. Another way to $quot;publically finance$quot; campaigns

    is to reduce the value of their dollars.  In other words, reduce the marginal value of each additional dollar raised.  But, how do you do that?

    One idea that has been kicking around is to require television stations that use the public airwaves to broadcast their signals provide free air time to candidates on the ballot.  By requiring that those who are granted monopoly power of public spectrum give "free" ad spots to political candidates, the public interest is served by gaining more knowledge about the candidates, and the marginal value of buying an additional 30 second spot is reduced since (some) air time is free.

    Sure, there are technical details to work out, and there's also the problem of federal vs. state races, but it is an idea that's been kicking around for some time now.  Walter Cronkite has lobbied for it a good bit.

    • Yup -

      see the post linked in my promotion comment.

    • yes

      The only real solution is public financing, which can come either in the form of money to campaigns, or public campaign infrastructure (for example, free media time), or both.

      Exactly what I was getting at.

      I remember being in Israel during an election campaign.  Every party was allotted a slot of time on TV, and the whole family would sit down every week (actually, I think it may have been more than once a week) for the hour of political campaigning by all the parties.  It even developed a soap opera quality, because so many households watched it every week - for example, someone who previously appeared for one party might switch for a particular reason, and appear in another party's ad the next week, and several other parties would refer to the scandal in their own ads...  nobody wanted to miss an installment :)  Over time, the parties conducted an ongoing debate in front of the public through these TV slots.

    • We Have It Now!

      Stormy - it's called Public Access television.  ANY candidate can make a show.  Most do.

      • drop in the bucket

        Public Access TV is available per-municipality only.  It's great for candidates for municipal office, and sometimes for state rep, but almost worthless for other offices.  The irony in suggesting that public acess means "we already have it" is that those are the very campaigns where media is least important, and canvassing and mailing are most important.  The kinds of campaigns where TV is the biggest expense and free media time would have the most impact are those for higher office, where public access cable is worthless.  (There's also the fact that many people don't have cable, because it costs money, but that's a smaller issue than the very local range of these stations).

        Public Access TV is a great thing for local communities.  I'm very glad we have it.  And it does add something valuable to city council, alderman, and mayoral races.  But it is no general answer to the problem we're discussing in this thread, it's just a drop in the bucket.

        • Outside 128

          Cos -

          The public access station in my area covers 7 towns; the abutting one covers 3.  Geographically, that's about a 75 mile span, covered by 2 pubic access stations.

          In Boston, things are different but east and west of the city, pubic access is a really viable option.

          The ony people who wold be helped by your idea are those running for statewide office, and they have millions to buy their time on Ch. 4, 5 & 7, not to mention the earned media they garner.  IMHO, legislative races are far more important that a clique of 5 officeholders.

          It seems you are solving a sitywide probelm with a statewide solution.

          • Outside 128

            In Savoy, where one of my best friends grew up, there's no cable at all.

            In a lot of places where public access covers 5 or 6 towns, a state rep district covers 10 towns.

            And like I said, lots of people just don't have cable.

            In small local campaigns, it's all about canvassing and mailings.  Local media is cheap when you do have to pay for it, which you often don't because they love to cover local candidates.  You can run a credible campaign without media at all, even if it were expensive.  You need to raise money to hire staff, and send mailings.

            Those running for statewide office only have millions to spend because they're wealthy, or because they fundraise a lot.  That's exactly the problem I'm trying to solve, both for local and statewide candidates: We need a third option, where you can be poor or of average means, and run a credible campaign without relying on private fundraising.

            Free media time would do a lot for campaigns where media is a big deal: US Congress and up.  It wouldn't do much for local campaigns, you're right - I already said that in one of my first comments on this post.  Public access, by applying only to local campaigns, therefore has little impact on this discussion one way or the other.  It's nice, but it's a drop in the bucket.

  2. Don't forget local campaigns

    When thinking of clean elections, or other campaign finance reforms, people have a tendency to focus on higher offices.  Don't forget to consider how your reforms affect races for lower office - there are a lot more of them!

    When you're running for alderman, or even state rep, TV advertising doesn't play much of a role.  Especially in the most important contests, such as special elections and primaries for open seats, the field campaign is the most important.  A campaign's main expenses are:

    • Office, utilities, phones, computers, voter file database
    • Staff: campaign manager, field director, fundraiser, possibly a strategist and an IT person
    • Signs, stickers, door hangers, brochures
    • Mailings!

    In a small campaign, the majority of the money goes towards mailings, and staff salaries.  A candidate who can afford to hire a campaign manager and field director, and send three mailings to her target voters, will defeat a far superior candidate who can't afford to do these things.  Almost regardless of what's in the media.

    • A few comments

      I know I'm coming late to this post, but after reading it today and then reading it again this evening, I felt I had to offer a few comments.

      First, someone who has donated money to federal, state, and local candidates, I'm frankly a bit offended that some of those posting on the topic apparently believe that all campaign contributions are just a legalized form of bribery.  I've given to many candidates, and I've never felt like I've been bribing anyone.  I give because I want to support someone who shares my ideals, vision, or who I think will bring new ideas to government.  I give because I support them, not because I expect them to support me.

      I also have two viability tests for prospective candidates: signatures and fundraising.  And that is my central concern with public financing.  Currently the signature threshold is fairly low, but the fundraising threshold can be high, depending on the race.  If, and it's a big if, we ever decided to do full public financing, then the signature threshold should be raised substantially.  Only viable candidates should have access to taxpayer funding, and right now anyone who can gather 250 signatures can run for City Council in Boston.  I think most of us, given a few free Saturdays and maybe one or two family members could collect 250 signatures.

      instead of public financing, I'd suggest the following, at least for federal candidates and possibly statewide candidates as well: all money must be raised within your particular state or district.  At least that would give everyone the same pool of potential donors and ensure that the candidate's supporters had a real stake in the election.

      • fundraising as a viability test

        First of all, I'm not the one who suggested that all contributions to candidates are bribery.  I do think candidates are influenced by who contributes to them, but as I explained, influences come in many forms, and some of them are good influences.  However, I think a system in which campaigns are primarily privately financed is a system where the structure of financial influence is distorting and corrosive overall - regardless of whether many particular contributions you look at are "good".

        That's where we get to the core of my response to your comment: Yes, people do use fundraising as a test of viability.  But it's a bad test, because it's a test that overrepresents people with more money and underrepresents people with less money, to a very extreme degree.  The only reason it's an effective viability test under the current system, is a circular reason: because we know candidates will need to raise money to run credible campaigns.  So, fundraising indicates the ability to run a credible campaign, ergo it's a viability test.  It shouldn't be, not it its current form.  It's a distorting, corrosive viability test when you consider the system overall.  Unfortunately, as long as campaigns are primarily privately financed, it's a required test, so we're stuck with it.

        Your suggestion for "instead of public financing" is creative, but I think it's got a lot of negatives and no positives.  It certainly doesn't solve the problem of overrepresenting the rich and unrepresenting the poor.  That happens within districts - and remember that in an election for statewide office, the whole state is the district.  Among the many problems with this suggestion, I think the primary one is being able to define the location a contribution comes from.  If you use residency as your definition, it will lead to ridiculous results like barring the owner of a local business from donating to their favorite candidate for alderman because they happen to live in a different ward.  It would also often prevent candidates from jumpstarting fundraising for their first campaign in the usual way: asking their family and friends, and people from organizations they've worked in.  Or you may have one candidate who lives near his family and they mostly happen to be in the same district, vs. another candidate who moved for college decades ago, and the second candidate is at a distinct disadvantage.

        You could, instead, think of ways to make public financing include viability tests that make sense.  Some public financing laws only have public money kick in once a candidate has raised a certain minimum threshold - that's sort of the public financing requirement of a signature requirement.  With some laws, the threshold isn't an amount of money, but rather a number of contributors.  For example, require a candidate for statewide office to get at least 1,000 donors giving at least $10 each, before they qualify for public money.  Or, look at the Minnesota system we're discussing in comments below, where "public" finacing actually comes in the form of individual contributions, reimbursed by the state.

        The fundraising viability test in a privately funded election system has tremendous drawbacks.  It distorts and corrupts our democracy.  It's possible to construct public financing clean elections systems with sensible viability tests that don't have these drawbacks, or have them to a much much lesser extent.

  3. Late to the scene again...

    Would someone call me next time an interesting blog topic is going on? :) Cos, you made a compelling argument, and got me thinking. However, first off, I think you mis-used my quote about "influence". From there to about the last paragraph, I lost the tight thread of your argument, perhaps out of affinity for my own writing, perhaps not. As I implied, I do want to think through this a little more, in light of Cos' points, however while I do I will throw out an item, which I suspect will at the end of the day be my biggest reason for opposing public campaign financing: control. It's not about how I do or don't like how candidates are or aren't controlled by money and donors now. It's how I would not like candidates being forced to run publicly funded campaigns that were controlled by the state or federal government. I fear this kind of control in the hands of an over-bearing government (or, an over-bearing Party, anyone seen any of those around?) That's why I say, the best kind of campaign is a free campaign - meaning, the candidate is free to call up whomever he wants, however often he wants, and ask them for a donation. Also, I think my final quote about the "common person's campaign, brave and independent" not existing may have been twisted against me (sorry, wasn't expecting to see my two cents on the front page, I will start learning to speak only in sound bytes :) I think plenty of candidates are brave and independent in character, however, only candidates like Chris Gabrielli and Deb Goldberg can run campaigns that are independent financially. Finally, can I just make a point that I will cross-post on the LG topic? I can't believe how many Democrats and Progressives are cheering the fact that Deb is rich and will have tons of money to throw into the campaign. This from the progressives? Obviously at some point we threw our loftier ideals overboard and approached the Governor's race tactically - but when precisely did it happen, and is everybody going to be happy with the choice in retrospect? (Post-election, 2006: "Yes, the Democrats can elect a millionaire too...")

    • control

      It's how I would not like candidates being forced to run publicly funded campaigns that were controlled by the state or federal government.

      That's not an inherent requirement.  Public financing exists in several states now, and candidates are not forced to use it - they make a choice.

      I also don't think the control you're worried about is a problem.  Currently, the election system is effectively controlled by the major parties, and that is a problem.  It makes things a lot harder for new parties, small parties, and independent candidates to compete fairly.  But most people don't have a say in how the system is run.  The ones who do are the ones who get involved in the governing process of one of the major parties (such as many of us here), but we're partisans committed to one of those parties.  If government ran the campaign financing system, it would still be largely based on consensus between the major parties, but it would be a lot more transparent, and everyone would have a voice and a vote to influence it.

      Israeli elections are entirely publically financed.  Every party gets a campaign budget based on how many votes it got in the last election (with a guaranteed minimum for the small parties), and free air time on the main national TV station.  The system works well.  Nobody accuses the Israeli system of being rigged against or in favor of any parties or points of view, and almost every election yields surprising results and a change in leadership.

      Also, I think my final quote about the "common person's campaign, brave and independent" not existing may have been twisted against me [...] I think plenty of candidates are brave and independent in character, however, only candidates like Chris Gabrielli and Deb Goldberg can run campaigns that are independent financially.

      No, I understood what you meant, and it's what I meant to contradict.  In states with public financing, people of average means can run brave and independent campaigns just like Gabrieli and Goldberg can here.  Exactly that which you say will never happen, does happen.

  4. True public financing

    What if we were to "give" each registered voter $100 (or whatever) that they could use only as campaign contributions? That is to say, they could never actually touch or spend this money; it would sit it a "lockbox" until the voter elected to give it to one or more candidates.

    Eliminate all other forms of public financing, but allow current contribution limits to go forward thus, as another comment here said, reducing the marginal value of each extra dollar.

    Suddenly it's much more profitable for your campaign to pay attention to the little guy. Big guys can still give you big bucks, but there are an awful lot of potential $100 donors out there that you can tap with the right message.

    And so we equate votes with campaign contributions and would hopefully end up with candidates who will go after both votes and contributions.

    Logistical problems abound, of course. First is the issue of how voters can elect to give this money. I think at some semi-official start to the "campaign season" you'd have to mail a form to every registered voter. They can fill out the form and mail it back with which candidate(s) they want to give to. Online should also be an option for cost-saving purposes, but not everybody can go online.

    Secondly, and far more problematic, is where to get this money from. In October 2004, Massachusetts had just over 4 million registered voters. If every voter gave the full $100 amount, we'd have to find a source of $400 million, and where would that come from?

    Nevertheless, this would be my plan for an ideal world. Any thoughts on adapting it for this world?

    • Minnesota does that

      In Minnesota, you can contribute up to $50 to a candidate (or a party, I think), and get it reimbursed with your tax return.  The main problem with that system is that some people can't afford to wait a year to get their $50 back, but otherwise, I think it's a wonderful system, and I've suggested it to people here.

      An improvement would to handle the contributions directly through OCPF.  Every eligible resident could direct OCPF to contribute to campaigns on their behalf.

      Another possibility would be to have a graduated system.  For example, the first $25 could be free (paid entirely by the state), the next $225 you'd split 50/50, and the final $250 would have to be entirely your own money, up to a limit of $500/person.

      The details here deserve reflection, but the concept is one I like.  It would promote Howard Dean style fundraising, and make it much easier for candidates with poor constituencies to raise money without selling their political souls.

      • Minnesota

        Man, friggin' Minnesota... just when you think you've come up with a cool idea, Minnesota beats ya to it!

        More seriously... OCPF would be an ideal outfit to direct the money according to my plan. The issue I guess is more one of where does the state find $400 million (or even $100 million at $25/voter) to run this sort of thing.

        Minnesota gets by this, I guess, by the tax return thing; a significant portion -- perhaps even a majority -- of contributors in this system are going to forget to file for the reimbursement, or be inelegible because they lost the paperwork.

        Just to clarify: Is the $50 returned in its entirety, or is it just declared tax-deductible (so you get $5 or $10 back)?

        Still, where does the money come from in this day and age of constant budget shortfalls?

        • full reimbursement

          You get it all back.  They send you a check.

          The money comes from general funds, I believe.  Budgeting is about priorities.  If we believe democracy that isn't bought by the wealthy is a priority for us, we should pay for it.  Otherwise, the wealthy will continue to pay for it, and buy the government they prefer.

          • Agreed

            I fully agree. I guess my "where does the money come from" question is more aimed at convincing people, especially those currently in power, that this is something they ought to budget for.

            You and I agree that this is something that's a good idea and ought to be implemented (after carefully considering everything, of course; I'm not saying my original post should necessarily be implemented verbatim), but what of the rest of the world, and especially the Legislature...?

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