Money worked: Election 2008

Obama raked in a mindboggling $600+ million in campaign funds. Considerable more than his opponent. So did he buy his way into the White House? Is the importance of money in US elections in any way suspect, troubling or subtracting from the way democracy works? Could Obama have used those money to build schools or pay back on US debts or whatever, and still have won the election?

Nope. Money DOES talk, and we’ve set up a whole system designed to make sure nothing else does.

Don’t you mean “is the importance of money in the hands of Democrats in any way suspect, troubling…”?

Yes, Obama’s money certainly helped him win. There’s no doubt about it. Any speculation about whether he could have won without money is bound to be pretty untethered from any empirical work.

But, don’t make the mistake of thinking that all money in politics is the same. There are two key arguments against massive private donations. First, they can make the candidate beholden to the donators. Second, it can allow a better-funded candidate to beat a candidate who would have won on ideas if money were equal.

Both arguments rely on an assumption of a certain kind of donations. $2,300 from 10 senior employees of an oil lobbying firm is very different from $23 from one thousand Americans of all walks. If Obama is responsible to anyone because of their donations to his campaign, it is 3.1 million ordinary Americans. And he wouldn’t have gotten those donations if his ideas about our country were not immensely popular.

So in this case, I don’t think Obama’s fundraising apparatus implicates the two major concerns about money. Quite the contrary. I think he showed how you can raise a lot of money without taking a single dollar from lobbyists, and by accepting mostly small donations from people like me. I also think that you cannot have a fair system of public financing without vastly restricting the First Amendment rights of third-party groups. So this is the face of elections to come.

Nothing much to add but just wanted to mention this is the second OP I’ve seen recently in which the poster not only suggested Obama’s campaign funds bought the election, but that somehow those donor funds could simply be used for something else – like schools, etc., because he/she feels it’s a more worthwhile use of the those funds.

That’s not how campaign donations work no matter what one believes about usefulness of spending large amounts of money on an election.

Nope. Of the two remaining candidates Obama was my man.

Probably the ideal would be to have complete public financing of elections. But, given that we don’t have that, I agree with Richard Parker that the way in which Obama raised money, i.e., with lots of little donations from many different people makes it much less troubling than raising money in a way that makes you beholden to a few special interests.

As for your idea of how the money could have been better spent, you should realize that on the scale of U.S. federal government spending, $600 million is chump-change. It is something well less than 0.1% of the federal budget and, by my estimate, it would pay for something like 2 days of spending on the Iraq war.

Quite frankly, I don’t believe the American people can be bribed in that way. Other ways, sure, but not campaign spending.

At least around here, the non-liberals generally seem to hold that campaign funds are a manifestation of free speech, and restricting them in any way via campaign finance reform is not only ineffective but an infringement of First Amendment rights. Consider this August 2004 GD thread:

I don’t think many anti-CFR posters are suddenly going to decide that unrestricted access to campaign funds is now “suspect, troubling or subtracting from the way democracy works” just because it’s a Democrat who benefited from it. It’ll be interesting if they do, though.

Perhaps not, but that is a bit of a circular argument. If he already was immensely popular enough to have won the election he wouldn’t have needed the money. But of course many small donations are much better than a few large. This fusion of capitalism and democracy. Why do people pay to him? What is it they think they get for their money? Do they feel like they are helping buying the election, or is it more like donation to charity?

If the constitution makes it impossible to limit the amount used on elections, would a “gentleman” deal between the two candidates not to spend more than a certain amount be unthinkable? With all your national financial troubles I should think most people would agree, such money could be better spend other places and any breaking of such an agreement would be extremely unpopular.

You are mighty large for a country that is neck deep in debt. 600 million here. 600 million there. It all adds up and suddenly you got real money.

Well I don’t have any First Amendment rights, so I’m free to speculate. In fact where I’m at political TV adds are already illegal and I don’t think this has hurt democracy here to any great extend. But of course, things are very different and may not be transferable to the USA.

What about pro-CFR posters then? Those seem mostly to have been liberals. Have you changed your opinion on money in election campaigns?

People like me sent the money to Obama because we felt that getting him elected was an important use of the cash. If I had wanted to spend it on something else, I would have.

But supposedly your own vote was already secured, so you must think you by this money have helped him win other peoples votes. Did you buy those votes?

I’m not arguing he would have won without it. I’m arguing that while you might get thousands of dollars from corporations in an attempt to sway your opinions, you won’t get them from millions of people for that reason.

I’m not sure I can speak for anyone but myself. It is very much like donating to a charity, except that there is no charity to donate to in order to close Guantanamo, regulate greenhouse gases, appoint moderate jurists, etc., etc.

I was not really in the money is speech camp until I made my own donations. I very much felt that it was an act expressing my political beliefs, and helping my representative to express his.

The problem not the candidates. They could agree to set limits, as you suggest. But if one side has supporters who independently decide to spend millions on smear ads, the other candidate needs money to rebut them. It is much harder to make allegations without being part of the campaign than to rebut them independently.

Note that the Constitutional restraints placed on trying to limit funding are actually pretty pragmatic.
The point is not that there is some etheral Constitution that in some way interrupts campaign finance reform. The issue is the very real one that limits a person’s ability to participate in the political workings of the nation. Putting limits on donations means that if I support a candidate, wholeheartedly, and wish to do everything in my power to see that that person is elected, at some point I am going to run up against an arbitrary rule that prohibits me from offering my support.

This is not to say that there is no validity in being concerned that one candidate or another (or financial backer or another), can “buy” an election. It also does not mean that other political systems elsewhere in the world may not find a different but valid path. It simply means that there is a history and a tradition of activity in the U.S. that has led us to the current rules and that if we felt that the rules were really obnoxious, we should probably make the effort to amend the Constitution–an action that has simply gained no popular support. In other words, we may wring our hands over the terrible ways in which money “corrupts” the sysyem, but money has always “corrupted” the system and it is the devil we know.

If I do something I see advertised, have I been bought?

Don’t know. Unless it is a purely information advertisement, you have certainly been manipulated.

How is an ad ever purely information?

Perhaps it never is. Of course one can attempt to make it more so. Do you disagree that adds are generally manipulative?

So you’re using “buy votes” to mean “persuade voters?” If so, I suggest using the latter phrase. The former implies something untoward, like bribery.

(Just as a heads up, the word is ads, not adds.)

“Manipulative” has the connotation of something negative. If I try to make something seem appealing, I don’t consider that a negative. If, for example, I think I look good in a particular hairstyle, I don’t consider wearing my hair that way “manipulative” even if it’s supposed to make me more attractive or appealing.