The 2018 campaign may set a record for midterm spending, predicted to hit the $4 billion mark. The ways in which this staggering sum of money will have been collected and spent, and either disclosed or not disclosed, are evidence yet again that our campaign finance system — if it can even be called a “system” — is in tatters. Super PACs, which can take money from virtually any source in any amount and spend just as freely, stand out as the most glaring example of the collapse of the post-Watergate-era model of regulation. Contribution limits, restrictions on corporate spending, disclosure requirements and muscular independent enforcement: These pillars of the systemic reforms of the 1970s are all crumbling. How bad is it? In 2016, it turns out, one of the larger political organizations active in the presidential election, employing hundreds and spending millions, was organized and run by a foreign government. This intervention from abroad did not end there: The director of national intelligence has warned Congress that Russia “perceives its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 U.S. midterm elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations.”
This, then, is the state of campaign finance: a no-holds-barred competition that has proved irresistible to foreign state actors. With the collapse of the 1970s model of regulation, the question is what should take its place — and what role should the United States government play?
There is no reason to believe that the old system can be restored. Super PACs are here to stay, but they are not the only source of radical change. So-called social welfare organizations — like the Koch brothers’ conservative Americans for Prosperity and similar organizations on the left — engage in just enough electoral activity to have a major impact, but not so much that they must comply with the same rules, such as disclosure regulations, that bind regular political committees.
Meanwhile, the storied 30- or 60-second TV ad is diminishing in importance. Digital politics consumes a steadily increasing share of campaign spending. The merest sliver of the population provides the private contributions on which campaigns run: In 2016, 2.76 percent of all individual contributors donated half of all individual money given to candidates, and just 1.31 percent of the voting-eligible population made any contributions at all.