Why you should care
Because money may talk, but it’s got to do a lot more than that to succeed in American politics.
During the last presidential election cycle, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson placed over $100 million in bets on the political roulette wheel only to see almost every one of his chosen red numbers, from Newt Gingrich to Mitt Romney, come up empty-handed. But today, candidates like Donald Trump claim they don’t need billionaires, and others, like Bernie Sanders, don’t want them and still others backed by big money — from Jeb Bush to Scott Walker, who burned through $7.4 million before leaving the race — are demonstrating that there can be very little correlation between cash in hand and standing in the polls. Are the billionaire donors courting yet another disaster at the tables in 2016?
In Hollywood, they call it “dumb money” — industry slang for that wealthy, independent financier who waltzes into town and subsequently burns through a small fortune on a vanity film project before trying a new hobby. But in recent years, after the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, it seems like the dumb money has ushered in a new Wild West landscape of money in American politics, opening the floodgates of campaign spending as never before. And this election appears poised to break the fundraising and spending records set in recent cycles. Already, Trump and Sanders aside, many candidates and their super PACs have some big donors committed to their side: Super PACs supporting Jeb Bush, Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz have received donations from multiple billionaire families, Marco Rubio just landed another billionaire backer and even struggling former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum has a billionaire in his corner.
Such donors are largely male, self-made billionaires from energy, finance and other industries, and they are crafting what boils down to their own privatized political parties around their own pet causes and politicians. And while they may aspire to make the next House of Cards in Washington, the end product, at least so far, has been more like Paris Hilton’s House of Wax. Indeed, some of their pet causes may have clouded their judgment, and an analysis by Yahoo! Finance of campaign donations in presidential and congressional campaigns in 2012 and 2014 found that, far from buying elections, the wealthiest donors were often backing extreme candidates with low chances of success and also canceling each other out. Conservative super PACs receiving funding from the biggest mega donors had just a 42 percent success race in backing candidates.
Money can make a candidate competitive, but it can’t guarantee an outcome.
Mason Harrison, Crowdpac’s political director
There are several reasons billionaires enjoy such low returns on their political investments — many of which are structural and not the result of “dumb” decisions. A polarized electorate means there are fewer voters to be swayed, the partisan nature of contests creates an arms race in which money is spent more to keep up than get ahead and even the most well-funded ad blitzes have negligible lasting impacts. “Some donors have learned the hard way,” says Mason Harrison, the political director at Crowdpac, a nonpartisan company that uses data to make it easier for citizens to learn about politicians, “that money can make a candidate competitive, but it can’t guarantee an outcome.”
To be sure, that hasn’t stopped donors from building on the lessons learned from 2012 and 2014. In particular, says Darrell West, author of Billionaires: Reflections on the Upper Crust and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution think tank, billionaire donors have learned “the importance of a field game,” diverting investments from TV ads to voter ID and registration efforts, along with building strong social-media and data-analytics capacities that help target key voters. For example, the LIBRE Initiative, a grassroots organization backed by the Koch Brothers, has field offices across the country dedicated to reaching out to Latino voters. “Having a communications strategy that connects with people,” West says, “is the most important adjustment [billionaire donors] have made.”
For some, politics remains a long-term investment, not limited to one election cycle. For others, it’s more of a passion or a hobby, motivated not by boosting their bottom line but, as Politico reporter Kenneth Vogel notes in his book Big Money, by “a political junkie’s love of the game.” Adelson, for one, didn’t respond to OZY’s request for comment but previously told The Wall Street Journal that his risky political investments were not unlike his real-life gambling business, “where winning and losing is the basis of the entire business.”
The good news for those of us without a billion dollars: Even if the chips being placed on the table by big-money donors are raising the value of the election pot, it shouldn’t scare average voters into folding. Harrison points out that the roughly $3.4 billion spent on the 2014 midterm elections was less than half of what Americans spent on potato chips, and the fact that this amount comes from so few individuals “speaks to how drastically the influence of big donors would be diluted if more people simply engaged in the process.”
So the better question may not be what the “dumb money” is doing next but how quickly the rest of us can leverage the data and technology and get smarter ourselves. The true arms race may well end up being waged not within a class of mega donors, but between money and the masses.