How Our Corrupt Campaign Finance System Enabled Trump -- And Kneecapped His Rivals

While the rest of the field hopelessly chases megadonors and their unlimited dark money, Trump is having the last laugh.

As 2015 comes to a close, many people are still wondering how reality television mogul and rejected Guy Fieri appetizer Donald Trump continues to lead the race for the Republican presidential nomination -- and why a nominally able coterie of experienced establishment politicians has proven unable to break his stride.

So what's holding the rest of the field back? Analysts have focused on Trump's rhetoric -- the way he loudly, freely enunciates an impolite version of the conservative id -- and how well it's resonating.

But there's another way in which Trump has broken with the rest of the field: He's not relying on the Citizens United-spawned campaign finance regime, with its welter of nonprofits and super PACs. In October, he told the nine super PACs that appeared to be supporting him to "stop using his name, likeness, and slogans and to return any donations they have already received," The Washington Post's Jenna Johnson reported at the time.

Rather than losing out as a result of this approach, Trump is thriving while his rivals stumble around inside the dark-money Tomorrowland their party continues to build. Even if the business mogul is no normal person's idea of a standard-bearer for a better, more citizen-focused politics, his opponents have more than ably made the case that this massive injection of money into the political system has -- at least at the presidential heights -- "weirded" it out of proportion.

From elaborate and clunky apparatuses for skirting Federal Election Commission laws to a failure to recognize the need for retail politics, Trump's rivals make it seem like it was smarter to simply reject the Citizens United era's promise of unlimited campaign funds. Instead of innovation, there is confusion. Instead of freedom, there seems to be a dead weight around the necks of campaigns that might otherwise have been competent.

iCARLY: Fiorina's Outsourced Army Is Doing Everything But Win

John Bazemore/AP

Over at Mother Jones, Timothy Murphy heralds this election cycle as the "Age of the Uncampaign," and drops you deep within its plastic dystopia by introducing you to the campaign ex machina of Carly Fiorina, an organization known as Conservative, Authentic, Responsive Leadership for You and for America, which -- when its final f's and a's are sanded off -- goes by the slick new-age moniker "CARLY."

CARLY is supposed to be some sort of genius invention, a kind of insider outsourcing of campaign drudgery in which logistics are not coordinated by the campaign itself, but by a super PAC. What makes this arrangement so interesting is that according to the law, campaigns and super PACs are not permitted to coordinate. As you know, these laws are never enforced. The campaign regulatory regime is best described as the FEC asking only that every campaign honor an unspoken request: "Please don't give us an obvious reason to sanction you and we promise to continue looking in the other direction."

So, to that end, the campaign of Carly Fiorina and her brutal army of logistics-bots have an arrangement that ensures that everything gets sorted out. Per Murphy:

Federal law also prohibits super-PACs from coordinating with political campaigns. The way CARLY and Carly navigate this is a bit more complicated. Traditionally, campaigns pick and choose which towns they want to visit, select a venue, and book an event. Fiorina doesn't usually do that. Instead, she accepts invitations from hosts, usually supportive chamber of commerce types, who'd like to hear her speak. She then posts the event on a Google calendar that's publicly accessible to anyone who knows where to look. CARLY sees an event has been posted and coordinates with the host about running it. So Carly coordinates with the host, and the host coordinates with CARLY, but CARLY does not coordinate with Carly. Got it?

Fiorina’s super PAC arrived on the scene in February, and its evolution to a clever, troll-the-good-government-types acronym may be the only memorable thing her campaign has done, aside from reliably demonstrate a seething contempt for Hillary Clinton and a strange affection for rebuilding the 6th Fleet. The former Hewlett-Packard CEO, having clawed out from the depths of the one-percenters that still scuttle in front of the cameras for the “undercard” debates, has not managed to sustain any of the brief spikes of momentum into which she’s lucked, and nothing her campaign does seems to help. After hitting a peak of 8 percent in the polls (according to the HuffPost Pollster poll average), she’s fallen back to 2.9 percent, good for seventh place, some 33 points behind Trump.

By all accounts, Fiorina's super PAC is great at making sure campaign events happen without the campaign itself having to lift a finger. But while it's a little nifty that CARLY has allowed Carly to outsource campaign jobs to Americans, it's enough to make you wonder whether this new age of super-complicated dance moves between candidates and their super PAC logisticians really is superior to the bygone era of simply making decisions -- which seems to be Trump's way of doing business.

Innovating Yourself To Death With Jeb! Bush

Mary Schwalm/AP

Carly (or if you prefer, CARLY) isn’t the only electoral venture struggling to make the new mechanisms of campaign finance work effectively. Back in April, The Associated Press proclaimed that the "traditional campaign" was about to get a "makeover," thanks to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. See, ol' Jeb, he immediately saw the promise of a future of unlimited and unaccountable money, and he knew that the certain path to victory was to "disrupt" the old way of running a campaign, and be the first to innovate his way to the future. Only Jeb (d.b.a. "Jeb!") could pull off the neat trick of blending his family's traditional, high-powered donor base and political connections -- critical assets in the "invisible primary" period -- with the unending font of political venture capital promised by the age of Citizens United.

What Jeb understood was that his super PAC could swallow up money in big heaping gulps, whereas his campaign, by law, was only allowed to digest his donors' largesse in bite-sized morsels. So Jeb took what looked like a perfectly logical leap. Instead of keeping his campaign manager, Mike Murphy, lurking around campaign headquarters, he sent him off to run the Right To Rise PAC, giving Murphy the authority to use that organization to fulfill all the duties of the traditional campaign. Under ordinary circumstances, one might wonder if divorcing a campaign's limbs from its brain in this way was a wise idea, but Jeb's move was, at the time, treated as if he had invented some bold political life hack. Jeb was, after all, "the smart one."

The concept, in development for months as the former Florida governor has raised tens of millions of dollars for his Right to Rise super PAC, would endow that organization not just with advertising on Bush's behalf, but with many of the duties typically conducted by a campaign.

Should Bush move ahead as his team intends, it is possible that for the first time a super PAC created to support a single candidate would spend more than the candidate's campaign itself — at least through the primaries. Some of Bush's donors believe that to be more than likely.

Eight months later, The Smart One has successfully innovated himself to 5.6 percent in the most recent HuffPost Pollster poll average, and you have to wonder if he even remembers why he thought reinventing the presidential campaign was a good idea in the first place.

Scott Walker 2016: Way Too Much And Yet Not Nearly Enough

Morry Gash/AP

Scott Walker, of course, can only envy Jeb’s position at this point. If Bush has been naive about his ability to master this new way of doing campaign finance, Walker’s the candidate who got entirely mastered by it. The Wisconsin governor's ruination was well underway by the time he hit a late-summer patch of messaging struggles, in which he was constantly following big policy declarations with even bigger policy walk-backs, some directly attributable to donor criticism.

But long before this period of near-daily humiliations, Walker was demonstrating that he lacked any real idea of how to run a campaign in this new era. He was great at getting donors to fund his "Unintimidated" super PAC. But even as Walker watched the money roll into the PAC, the funds he needed to pay campaign expenses were proving harder to come by.

Writing for The Atlantic, Yoni Applebaum highlighted the struggles of Walker (and Rick Perry) as a cautionary tale for the super PAC era. Walker, having lost sight of the fact that his campaign needed a healthy supply of "hard money" donations to keep the fires burning at his campaign office, was never able to exploit the generosity of his super PAC donors:

But it turns out that there are some things that Super PACs can’t do. Hard money can pay for the full gamut of campaign expenses, from hiring staff to purchasing printer toner to putting ads up on television. Super PACs can pay for television ads, but they can’t pay for campaign staff.

Perry and Walker were hoping to hang on for long enough to allow nominally independent Super PACs to flood the airwaves with supportive ads. But long before the first caucus, their hard dollars dried up, leaving them unable to make payroll.

So, Walker’s lowest moment as a presidential candidate was a strange thing to witness. As Mother Jones’ Russ Choma characterized it, the Wisconsin governor was caught between the demands of the donors who'd bought in with the biggest dollars, and the realities of a campaign that was too broke to act in any meaningful way to either meet those donors’ demands or get traction in the polls on its own merits. Walker’s subsequent exit from the race was the first indication that having a big pile of money around was maybe not all it was cracked up to be. (At least for an aspiring presidential candidate -- the governor's donors are going to extract a return on their investment even if Walker never makes it to the White House.)

Of course, in a way, a gigantic pile of money sings a siren song of its own utility, suggesting that the cash is an end in itself. And the lesson we're learning at the dawn of this age of unlimited political money isn't so much about how our politics gets destroyed as about how that money might exert a destructive pull on our politicians themselves, luring them onto dangerous shoals. The ships get sunk, but everyone gets paid.

What you see from the Bush, Fiorina and Walker campaigns is that money -- specifically, the vagaries of campaign finance law that allow one to make a higher and deeper stack of ducats in some place other than a "campaign" -- has warped their thinking. They've become convinced that these oddball arrangements, in which the bulk of the activities that constitute the overall task of "running for president" are placed in the hands of another organization, are somehow more "efficient."

But what's the evidence that this is true? And what are these campaigns doing to improve their standing? Because it looks a lot like their answer to the first question is "people have given us money" and the answer to the second is "we'll get more people to give us money."

If You Want Marco Rubio To Show Up, Bring Cash

Mary Schwalm/AP

If this new era of campaign finance led candidates like Bush, Fiorina and Walker to make ill-advised campaign makeovers, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's attempt to leverage the potential of limitless boodle has left his campaign looking like botched plastic surgery.

Over at Gawker, Alex Pareene has offered a compellingly dim view of Rubio and his strange campaign, pointing out that what Rubio calls his "presidential campaign" doesn't look at all like a traditional campaign -- and people are starting to voice some real concerns about it.

As Rubio demonstrated a modicum of staying power during this fall's debate season, the Florida senator was greeted by the chattering classes as a candidate on the rise -- the "establishment fave" who was about to take over the primary season any minute now, just you wait. He was serious, he was competent and he was going about the business of running for president in the right and traditional way.

But lately, people have started to peek beneath the surface, and they're finding a candidate who's not actually invested in traditional retail politics and early-state voter outreach. Much like his former mentor Bush, Rubio has decided to try his hand at innovating. And how's that working out? Well, he may have taken it too far. Just ask National Review's Tim Alberta and Eliana Johnson, whose Dec. 9 dispatch from Des Moines began, "Everyone here is mad at Marco Rubio."

Yikes! Why?

On the campaign trail, Rubio is calling for a “new American century.” He’s also running a different type of campaign, one that eschews spending on policy staffers, field operations and other traditional aspects of a winning bid in favor of television advertising and digital outreach.

Rubio's vision of "running for President" may be the GOP field's most radical reinvention of the wheel -- all digital politics, virtually no personal politics. It's almost as if Rubio believes his presidential prospects rely so much on being "young" and "fresh" and "hip" that he can't countenance a concept so antiquated as glad-handing his way across Iowa and New Hampshire.

To Rubio, the only outreach worth doing is donor outreach. So while Trump leads the pack on a parade all over the early-state map, holding rallies, meeting voters and making nice with influential activists in the field, Rubio just sort of wanders around, looking for new rich pals to give him money. And when he meets someone with deep pockets, they get a lot more than the "digital presence" that the voters of Iowa and New Hampshire are getting from him. If you've ever talked with Rubio about what you can do for his campaign coffers, odds are that he's proved himself to be a very conscientious and attentive darling.

As Pareene points out, however, Rubio's practiced disdain for one-on-one contact with early-state voters is the exact wrong approach:

The superiority of field operations over “digital outreach” isn’t one of those hoary old campaign cliches beloved by out-of-touch old hacks: There is rigorous evidence supporting the (common-sense) idea that direct personal contact with potential voters is the single most consistently effective way to win campaigns. It’s commonplace (in the GOP, at least) to compare Marco Rubio, the young and charismatic one-term senator, with Barack Obama circa 2008, but Barack Obama’s revolutionary, Clinton-beating 2008 primary campaign was built around actual boots-on-the-ground organizing.

Why, if Rubio worked half has hard to win over the actual voters in the early primary states, he might be poised to finish in second place in one of them. But he's not figured out that this is the way the game is played. "The problem [with Rubio's campaign] is that it isn’t one," writes Pareene. There's that idea of an "Uncampaign" again.

The Reverse-Engineered, Super PAC-Enabled Long Con Of Ben Carson


Which is maybe why the guy making out like a bandit in this new campaign finance regime is Ben Carson. He and his close affiliates have mastered and maximized the potential of this hell-with-the-lid-off era of money in politics. Their genius move was to construct a reverse-engineered "presidential campaign" that could exploit the space that election law and the media create for a presidential candidate -- for the purpose of minting money off of Carson's name.

Carson barely pretends to be a candidate. When his book tour took him to places far from the early primary battlegrounds, Carson happily complied without evidence of concern. And as his electoral fortunes have ebbed and flowed, there's no sign of worry or pressure, either. This is all in keeping with Carson's campaign, which also barely pretends to be one. As MoJo's Murphy notes:

Carson raised more money than any other Republican candidate in the summer of 2015, almost all of it through paid direct-mail programs. Because only a small fraction of direct-mail recipients donate, it costs a lot of money to make a lot of money—in Carson's case, he paid $11 million to raise $20 million during the third quarter of 2015. That leaves him with plenty of cash, but it also means that when you donate to Carson, you're mostly donating to his consultants.

The old saying is that every movement eventually becomes a racket. The innovation of Carson's backers was simply to skip to the end.

The Quietly Retro Campaign Of Ted Cruz

Mark Zaleski/AP

But there is one candidate who's made some headway cutting into Trump's advantage, and that's the guy who's happily let Trump jump out and seize it -- Ted Cruz. Of course, Cruz is up on the Citizens United game as well. He's courting big donors, and he's backed by super PACs. So how is he avoiding the rest of the field's fate?

Well, in the first place, Cruz does retail politics. The Texas senator is not averse to the work of meeting early-state voters or influential activists, like Rubio, and he's not trying to build a better mousetrap, like Bush. Cruz put in the time in Iowa, and with the backing of Hawkeye State evangelical firebrand Bob Vander Plaats, he earned his reward. The knock-on effect of Cruz's workmanlike effort is that support for his candidacy is rippling ever outward.

And when it comes to fundraising, there's just something more balanced about Cruz's approach. As The Washington Post's Katie Zezima and Matea Gold reported in October, Cruz "has hit on a fundraising formula that no other candidate has been able to match: raising millions from a robust base of grass-roots supporters while building a substantial network of rich backers."

As for his super PACs? The advantage Cruz has there is that despite the fact that the groups had raised "eye-popping" amounts of money as of April, they've not been terribly effective: In early November, CNN reported that most of the plans of Cruz's affiliated super PACs had either foundered or been put on hold.

At the time, this looked to be a "Cruz in disarray" story. But since then, if anything, his under-reliance on others to do his campaigning for him have allowed Cruz the chance to stride confidently into January. Cruz, running one of the only campaigns that genuinely resembles a traditional Republican electoral venture, is on track to potentially dislodge Trump in Iowa. It makes you wonder whether, if Jeb had been a little less thought-leadery in his approach to getting elected, he wouldn't be faring better right now himself.

Obviously, it's too early to tell if Cruz's approach to beating Trump will be successful. But it's not too soon to consider the possibility that he's making the race tighter through a combination of fealty to old-school retail politics, a commitment to fundraising balance and, maybe, a little bit of luck, in that his super PAC holdings didn't grow so big, or become so critical, that they became stumbling blocks.

Will Donald Trump Outlast The GOP's Big-Dollar Donors?


If only for the moment, Trump is succeeding without the piles of dark money, without a network of affiliated super PACs brimming with ad-buy strategists working early-state angles, and without logistics drones coordinating the day-to-day of his campaign. With no need to sell a limited number of billionaires on a zazzy new campaign strategy, he's left Rubio to waste his time trying to dazzle the donor class. Instead, Trump is mounting a flesh-and-blood campaign in all the spaces Rubio’s declined to personally appear.

Of course, it's an open question as to whether Trump really wants it that way -- some reports have placed the candidate well within suck-up distance of major GOP donors like Sheldon Adelson, whose money Trump now assures us he abjures. And Trump has also claimed some unique privileges that may have rendered a huge campaign war chest unnecessary: His ability to convince cable news producers to just let him phone in to the anchor's desk remains a benefit that's not trickled down to the rest of the field. For that matter, there's no other campaign whose rallies are treated as must-broadcast breaking news events by the cable outlets.

Nevertheless, one has to give Trump a little credit for keeping himself so removed from his rivals' super PAC pitfalls. When he wants to stage a rally, there's no need to coordinate it through the weird and complicated system by which Carly Fiorina activates her CARLY-bots. Unlike Cruz, he's not leaving off-putting stock footage laying around for the ad-makers with whom he "can't coordinate." And while Trump may say a great many grotesque things, he's not beholden to an army of donors who claim the right to final edit of the campaign message, as Walker was.

Trump's got no strings attached to his person, no albatrosses around his neck. But for everyone else in the field, it looks like these burdens are all that this new era of unlimited campaign dollars actually has to offer.

Speaking of! Back in November, Bill Scher, sizing up a beleaguered and bitter Jeb! Bush campaign, took to Politico with some advice for the former Florida governor. "Jeb can still win," Scher wrote, "but he needs to follow the comeback model of a Democrat."

That Democrat? John Kerry, who at this point in the 2004 presidential election was every bit as wayward as Jeb is now. And Kerry's example did offer Bush some hope. As Scher described, Bush -- like Kerry -- could win the "vetting" war with his untested opponents. He could stay above the fray and let the campaigns around him lose their heads in an acid rain of opposition research. He could continue to present himself as the reasonable and sensible man in a room of loons, trusting the voters to return to a reasonable and sensible perch.

But there was one really important thing Kerry did to right his ship that Scher forgot about -- a surprising omission considering that it occurred almost exactly twelve years to the day before Scher's piece was published. Namely, Kerry fired Jim Jordan, the man running his campaign, and replaced him with Mary Beth Cahill.

And that's literally the one thing Jeb Bush cannot do: fire Mike Murphy. How could he? You can't replace the guy running your campaign if your campaign -- your reinvention of the traditional campaign -- is run out of a super PAC, with which you are "not allowed to coordinate."

When our corrupt campaign finance system prevents Jeb Bush from being able to fire the loser who's running his presidential campaign into the ground ... man, you can't blame Donald Trump for having a laugh at that.


Jason Linkins edits "Eat The Press" for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost politics podcast, "So, That Happened." Subscribe here. Listen to the latest episode below.

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