In his near-victory speech in Iowa, democratic socialist Bernie Sanders shouted one of his favorite talking points: “We can no longer continue to have a corrupt campaign finance system!”
It’s catchy (sort of). But is the system really corrupt?
Sanders loves to talk about how the “billionaire class” is “buying elections,” destroying the democratic system of “one person, one vote.” But ironically, the very success of Sanders’ campaign undermines his message.
If the election is as rigged as Sanders says, how could he be doing so well without a super PAC? If ordinary people don’t really have a voice anymore, then how did Sanders garner the support of close to half of Iowa caucus-goers?
The truth is, super PACs are really just another way for people unaffiliated with campaigns to exercise their right to freedom of speech. If 100 people want to pool their money and run an ad on TV for Bernie Sanders in Iowa, they can do so without violating the law.
Critics of the Citizens United decision often miss this crucial point: the Supreme Court decision did not allow unlimited contributions to candidates as is commonly believed, but it did remove restrictions on independent speech. Those who want to regulate the funding for political ads must logically support a law that restricts how much people can spend to make banners or decorate their yards in favor of a candidate.
Citizens United didn’t “rig” our elections. In fact, it increased the freedom of political speech by allowing all to participate. Many countries have taken the opposite approach. If government closely controls which political statements are allowed, corruption and abuse of power are just a slippery slope away.
This is what has allowed Sanders to rail against super PACs while benefiting heavily from them. “In fact, more super PAC money has been spent so far in express support of Mr. Sanders than for either of his Democratic rivals, including Hillary Clinton, according to Federal Election Commission records,” wrote Nicholas Confessore in the New York Times.
Sanders is right on one point. He doesn’t have a super PAC under his control. But there are plenty of Americans donating to super PACs that expressly support him. That’s an important freedom for our country to maintain.
Die-hard supporters of the corrupt election theory typically cite data that shows that the candidate with the most money usually wins. Though one response is to cite the numerous exceptions (including the 2012 presidential race), the more powerful rebuttal is that money is just as often an effect of a candidate’s support as it is a cause. After all, attractive, eloquent, and smart candidates are more likely to raise money and more likely to win. People are also more likely to donate to a candidate that they believe has a good chance of winning.
The money itself doesn’t actually play a major role. “Campaign spending has an extremely small impact on election outcomes, regardless of who does the spending,” concluded Steven Levitt, a renowned economist, in a paper that sought to control for differences between candidates.
This is evident in the results from Iowa Monday night. According to public data summarized by the New York Times, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and PACs that support him have raised over $150 million — twice as much as Marco Rubio. Yet Rubio received a solid 23.1 percent of votes in the Iowa caucus, while Bush limped in with 2.8 percent. Nate Silver, a statistician and founder of FiveThirtyEight, commented that Bush’s super PAC “Right to Rise” spent $25,000 for each vote he received in Iowa. Not exactly a great return on investment.
Even though the PACs supporting Bush have already spent as much money as Rubio has raised from all sources, the two are still even in New Hampshire polls. So much for “billionaires buying elections.”
Donald Trump, a billionaire himself, has also barely spent or raised any money and yet he is leading New Hampshire solidly (and has remained the national Republican front-runner for some time). For Trump, the money hasn’t been much of a factor — he receives so much publicity from free media that running ads isn’t a “yuge” priority.
Despite what Bernie Sanders says, wealthy people still can’t buy votes. They can run ads or print yard signs, but let’s be honest — have you ever known anyone that changed their political position because of a TV ad?