It is easy to dismiss as overblown the concern about the outsize role of ultra-rich donors in the American political scene. Exhibit 1: Jeb Bush. Bush’s $100 million in super PAC fundraising was supposed to be part of a shock-and-awe campaign that would scare away competitors and give him a smooth path to the Republican presidential nomination. Well, it hasn’t worked out that way. Bush has been polling toward the bottom in the Republican race despite the war chest, and Donald Trump, who has spent little on his campaign despite his billionaire status, has been on top. “Hurrah for Citizens United ,” Politico’s Jack Shafer wrote in one representative piece. He asserted that worries about the 2010 Supreme Court ruling have been proved wrong. “Expectations that big money would float the best-financed candidate directly to the White House have yet to materialize this campaign season.” But this overly simplistic analysis misses the key role of money in contemporary American politics. In spite of the rhetoric of some campaign reformers, money doesn’t buy elections. Instead, it increases the odds of electoral victory and of getting one’s way on policies, tax breaks and government contracts. And the presidential race is the place we are least likely to see money’s effects. Looking to Congress and the states, though, we can see that the era of big money unleashed by the Supreme Court is hurtling us toward a plutocracy in which the people with the greatest economic power can wield great political power through campaign donations and lobbying.
Bush is simply the latest in a long line of politicians whose candidacies demonstrate that all the money in the world won’t make people buy a bad product. Consider former eBay executive Meg Whitman, who spent $140 million in her losing bid to beat Jerry Brown in the California governor’s race in 2010. The more she spent, the less voters liked her. Or take Dave Brat, the barely known Virginia college professor who spent less on his successful Republican primary challenge to former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor than Cantor’s campaign spent on meals at steakhouses. There’s no easy correlation between money spent on politics and electoral outcomes.
Money, nonetheless, does matter to elections. Just 158 out of 120 million American families have donated nearly half the money that’s been spent on the 2016 presidential contest. Bush, Carly Fiorina, Chris Christie and other candidates remain viable only because of super-wealthy donors. Without the new super PACs, they couldn’t have withstood such dismal poll numbers. The same was true in 2012. Billionaire Sheldon Adelson ’s $20 million contribution to a super PAC supporting Newt Gingrich kept Gingrich in the race and gave voters a second and third and fourth look at the candidate. And yet a single donor’s influence in presidential contests is tempered by other factors. With billions of dollars sloshing around on all sides, so much free media attention (especially to outlandish candidacies like Trump’s) and widespread public interest, mega-donors are only one part of a larger picture.