Who Wins the Money Primary?

Robert Borosage

For presidential wannabes, the money primary has already begun, as aspirants troop from one gathering of the wealthy to another. Jeb – “my own man” – Bush hasn’t announced formally yet, but is expected to do well on the Republican side, tapping his family’s deep well of contacts. Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, is likely to set records, drawing on the Clinton funding circles.

But they won’t be the big winners of the money primary. The big winner of the money primary, as a recent article in the New York Times demonstrates, is the money.

America’s extreme inequality has become a central concern for candidates in both parties, since pollsters concluded that a credible populist message is essential in 2016.

Republicans, of course, largely reject government intervention to redress extreme inequality. The lone announced Republican candidate, tea party favorite Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) portrays himself as a populist champion but, the Times reports, he argues that when “government takes over the economy, it freezes everything in place. And it exacerbates inequality.” Cruz calls for lowering taxes and rolling back regulations, traditional conservative pabulum.

These views, the Times notes, are contrary to the opinion of the vast majority of Americans. A January 2014 Pew Research Center poll found that Americans not only considered inequality a problem, but that 69% percent – and almost half of Republicans – agree that government should act to “reduce the gap between the rich and everyone else.

Hillary Clinton, like all Democrats, supports a more activist government role, including raising the minimum wage, guaranteeing pay equity for women and more. But, as the Times reports, she has yet to mention tax hikes as a possible answer to extreme inequality. “By contrast,” the Times notes, “more than half of Americans and three-quarters of Democrats believe the ‘government should redistribute wealth by heavy taxes on the rich,’ according to a Gallup poll of about 1,000 adults in April 2013.” Polling by Americans for Tax Fairness and the Democracy Corps found that insuring that the rich and corporations paid their fair share of taxes ranked among the top of Americans priorities. For a full summary of the American attitudes on these questions, go to populistmajority.org

So why are candidates so timorous? Turns out the rich aren’t exactly excited about paying more in taxes. A survey of 80 wealthy Chicago area residents by Benjamin I. Page and Jason Seawright of Northwestern University and Larry M. Bartels of Vanderbilt University found that 62 percent agreed, “differences in income in America are too large. But only 17 percent thought government should ‘redistribute wealth by heavy taxes on the rich.’”

Similarly, only 19 percent of the wealthy, versus two-thirds of the general public, said the government should “see to it” that anyone who wants a job can find one. Forty percent of the wealthy, versus 78 percent of the public, said the government should make the minimum wage “high enough so that no family with a full-time worker falls below the official poverty line.” As a summary provided at Populist Majority shows, elites are more likely to favor cutting Social Security than most Americans, more likely to support corporations moving jobs abroad, more likely to support cutting Medicare and education to cut the deficit, and less likely to support providing affordable college to all.

The Times quotes Professor Page’s conclusion: There is a sense in which wealth seems to trump partisanship,” shaping people’s views no matter their age, gender or political party.

The first requirement for a viable presidential candidate is to fare well in the money primary, raising the support needed to manage and run a real campaign. The total spent on the 2016 presidential campaign is likely to reach near $5 billion, with each major party candidate raising over $1.5 billion directly. To raise that money, the candidates will spend far more time talking to the wealthy than addressing the voters. It should surprise no one that the winner of the money primary is the money.

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