Should Vanity Candidacies Have Us Worried?

Sam Pizzigati

A new study says super-rich candidates who personally bankroll their own campaigns almost always lose. But that, unfortunately, doesn’t make the rest of us winners.

The ticker on billionaire Meg Whitman’s personal outlays for her California gubernatorial campaign has now hit $91 million. But Whitman, this election season, is hardly spending alone.

In Connecticut, entertainment impresario Linda McMahon appears likely to spend $50 million, from her family fortune, on a U.S. Senate seat bid. Down in Florida, former for-profit hospital CEO Rick Scott has invested almost $23 million out of pocket in another gubernatorial race. And a host of other awesomely wealthy candidates, from coast to coast, have dipped into their fortunes for millions more.

This year, in fact, will almost certainly set a record for campaign cash spent by self-financed wealthy candidates, and this impending record, predictably enough, is already sparking some sober reflection in America’s chattering class. Should we, the columnists are asking, be fearing this flood of personal fortune into our political system? Or are the super wealthy just wasting their money?

The National Institute on Money in State Politics can help us answer these queries. In June, this Montana-based Institute released a careful analysis of how wealthy, self-financed candidates have fared in state races since 2000.

These deep pockets, the Institute study concludes, have fared not particularly well. The study identifies 6,171 campaigns for state office where candidates received over half their campaign contributions from themselves or their immediate families. These candidates, from 2000 through last year, gave their campaigns $700.6 million of their own money. In the end, they won only 11 percent of their races.

So can we breathe a sigh of relief, secure in the knowledge that the rich can’t buy their way into political power? We might want to put a hold on that sigh. Money still matters.

Those candidates whose campaigns spend the most turn out to win the most, the National Institute study also found, by a wide margin. Candidates who collected and spent more campaign cash than their rivals, says the study, won 87 percent of their races.

And where do candidates — who aren’t super rich themselves — get the bulk of their campaign cash from? Not from average Americans. The donors of appreciable campaign cash come overwhelmingly from the ranks of the affluent. One classic study, from the Joyce Foundation, found that 81 percent of Americans who contribute over $200 to candidates sit in America’s most affluent 6 percent.

America’s growing concentration of income and wealth, an American Political Science Association task force in 2004 concluded, has increased rich people’s capacity “to narrow the pool of viable candidates for elected office.”

Most of that narrowing takes place before voters are paying any attention, in what political observers have come to call the “money primary,” the trolling for cash — from rich people — that determines which candidates get taken seriously.

This trolling never really ends. Once elected, candidates spend vast amounts of their time cultivating their affluent donors — and potential donors. Their goal: to amass enough money to scare off challengers.

The end result: Most all elected officials of national and state significance now spend their days and dinners surrounded by men and women of wealth. One direct consequence: Our political system has become, as the American Political Science Association suggests, “a great deal more responsive to the preferences of the rich than to the preferences of the poor.”

Reformers, of course, are struggling to level the political playing field, with a variety of proposals to better disclose — and limit — the cash deep pockets contribute to campaigns. But this reform work remains devilishly difficult. The rich, after all, don’t need to bankroll campaigns to make their presence felt.

signupThat $91 million that ex-eBay CEO Meg Whitman has spent so far on her California gubernatorial bid does not, for instance, include the over $1 million Whitman invested two years ago in an obscure movie production house.

Whitman, the New York Times noted last month, had shown no prior investment interest in independent movie production. Why the sudden interest in this firm? The firm’s biggest player just happened to be “a very prominent and much-sought-after Republican strategist” who “had been flirting with working on the campaign of Ms. Whitman’s future rival in the Republican primary.”

That strategist never did sign up with Whitman’s rival. Whitman won the primary.

Money talks, as the old saw goes, in many ways — and the staggeringly unequal distribution of our nation’s money guarantees that the rich and powerful will do most of that talking. If we want to see real and lasting reform of our political system, we have but one choice. We have to go after that unequal distribution.

Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much, the online weekly on excess and inequality published by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies. Read the current issue or sign up to receive Too Much in your email inbox.

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