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.