As we approach the end of the primary season, here are eight money-in-politics lessons we have learned midpoint in the elections.
1. The Supreme Court majority did not have a clue about what it was doing in the McCutcheon case.
In the McCutcheon case, Supreme Court Justices labeled the examples presented to the Court by Democracy 21 and others "divorced from reality" and "wild hypotheticals." These examples accurately predicted the outcome if the Court struck down the aggregate limit on individual contributions to party committees. Now, huge single checks are being written to joint fundraising committees created by Clinton and Trump, and their respective parties. The $33,400 limit on individual contributions to a national party for campaign use is being eviscerated and the presidency is on the auction block. The "wild hypotheticals" were correct and the Supreme Court was "divorced from reality."
2. There has never been a national election with so much political money coming from so many billionaires and multimillionaires.
As of May, the top ten donors and their spouses have given a total of more than $100 million to super PACs for the 2016 election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Twenty-eight donors and their spouses each have given at least $2.5 million. The top donor, a hedge fund CEO, has given $16.6 million. To put this in perspective, the average family of four earns $54,000 per year. This extraordinary flow of huge contributions is providing the Super Rich with magnified influence over elections and corrupting influence over government decisions. It is also creating deep cynicism among the American people about their interests being fairly represented in Washington.
3. Donald Trump went in the blink of an eye from self-described "Mr. Can't-Be-Bought" to self-defined "Mr. Puppet."
During the primaries, self-financing Donald Trump repeatedly pointed out he couldn't be bought by big donors. He attacked his primary opponents for their super PACs, saying that when donors give huge contributions to Jeb Bush for example, "they have him just like a puppet," and that "[Bush will] do whatever they want." Trump now has super PACs fighting over which one will be his "official" pro-Trump super PAC and he is raising huge contributions for a Trump/RNC joint fundraising committee. "Mr. Can't-Be-Bought" has left the building and "Mr. Puppet" has arrived.
4. Sometimes "coordination" is not "coordination."
Campaign finance law prohibits coordination between an outside spending group, like a super PAC, and a federal candidate. Correct the Record is a super PAC focused on refuting claims made about Hillary Clinton. Using a dubious scheme devised by the super PAC and Clinton's campaign lawyer, Correct the Record is openly and explicitly coordinating its activities with the Clinton campaign, claiming the right to do so because it is operating online. This effort means the Clinton campaign can control the spending of unlimited contributions made to Correct the Record and circumvent the $2,700 candidate contribution limit. So much for the ban on coordinated expenditures.
5. The gulf is huge between the American people and Clinton and Trump when it comes to big money in our politics.
Citizens overwhelmingly object to big money rigging Washington. Meanwhile, Clinton and Trump are vacuuming up every big contribution they can find. The Clinton/DNC joint fundraising committee has raised $60 million and the pro-Clinton Super PAC has raised $76 million from big donors. Trump meanwhile is racing to play catch up. He has announced plans to raise $1 billion for the general election after self-financing most of his primary expenditures. This will include many big donor contributions. Clinton and Trump have refused to learn the lessons of history and they are raising the same kind of big contributions that were responsible for the Watergate and soft money campaign finance scandals.
6. The best laid plans sometimes go awry as the Koch brothers found out in the 2016 election.
The Koch brothers and their network originally planned to spend an unheard of $889 million during this election cycle to finance their long-term goal of a Republican takeover of Washington. With Donald Trump, a candidate they have voiced strong objections too, being the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, their dream is apparently gone. So too is the $889 million campaign. The Koch brothers are now focusing their financial activities on helping Republicans keep control of the Senate. Koch groups have already spent $12 million in five Senate races and have reserved an additional $30 million more in ad buys later this year in Senate races.
7. The Sanders campaign has demonstrated once more the potential of the Internet to dramatically increase the role of small contributions in financing campaigns.
In his 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, Obama raised an historic amount online - more than $1 billion from more than eight million donors. Bernie Sanders has followed this model. As of May, sixty-two percent of the $206 million raised by Sanders has come from small contributions, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The challenge ahead involves making technological breakthroughs so that raising large sums of small contributions online becomes the rule, not the exception. The Internet and social media have revolutionized our society and can also revolutionize the way our campaigns are financed - dramatically increasing the role of small contributions in campaigns and greatly diluting the impact of big money.
8. Campaigns, political operatives and campaign finance lawyers have become more brazen than ever in flouting the campaign finance laws.
The law prohibits candidates from "directly or indirectly" controlling a super PAC, but Jeb Bush had his longtime political strategist run the pro-Bush super PAC. Donors have illegally been hiding their contributions from the public by giving them to super PACs in the name of LLC corporations. Trump strategists say they plan to pay for campaign staff from an RNC account that is restricted by law to being used only to pay for buildings. As a Republican campaign finance lawyer recently stated, "We are in an environment in which there has been virtually no enforcement of the campaign finance laws..." When laws aren't enforced, you don't have laws.
We are halfway through the 2016 national elections and the onslaught of political money from billionaires and multimillionaires will continue and increase. This is not the way our democracy is meant to work or the way our country is meant to be governed.