In the early days of her 2016 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton decried the influence of big money in politics -- calling the system "dysfunctional" and pledging to make fixing it a centerpiece of her second bid for the White House.
Then, on Wednesday night, the New York Times' Maggie Haberman and Nicholas Confessore reported this:
Hillary Rodham Clinton will begin personally courting donors for a “super PAC” supporting her candidacy, the first time a Democratic presidential candidate has fully embraced these independent groups that can accept unlimited checks from big donors and are already playing a major role in the 2016 race....
...Mrs. Clinton’s allies hope that with her support, the top Democratic super PAC, Priorities USA Action, will raise $200 million to $300 million. That is on par with what the largest Republican organizations, such as the Karl Rove-backed American Crossroads super PAC and its nonprofit affiliate, spent in 2012.
As the Times' story notes, Clinton is the first likely Democratic presidential nominee to fully embrace the world of super PACs; President Obama allowed the creation of Priorities USA Action during the 2012 election but never attended any of the events to raise money for the endeavor and, generally, kept it at arm's length.
How can Clinton reconcile her aggressive advocacy for reigning in big money in politics with her embrace of a super PAC aiming to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to tear down her eventual Republican opponent?
The answer she will likely give to that question, when pressed, is some version of the unilateral disarmament case: The only way to bring about real campaign finance reform is for me to get elected president. The only way for me to get elected president is to ensure a close-to-fair financial fight. The only way to ensure a close-to-fair financial fight is to help the super PAC raise money.
But, the honest truth is that Clinton isn't likely to be heavily pressed on the question by anyone other than the media. Why? Because for all the sturm und drang about the corrosive role that money plays in politics, there's very little evidence that anyone outside of a narrow swath of committed campaign finance reformers would even consider making it a voting issue in 2016.
Take a look at Gallup's polling on the most important issue(s) facing the country. Asked an open-ended -- meaning, no possible answers were given -- question on the most important problem in the country, one in three people in early April said something that fell under the broad "economy issues" umbrella. Here's a look at what the other seven in ten said. (The numbers on the far left are from the April poll; moving left to right the numbers come from Gallup surveys in March, February and January, respectively.)
There isn't a mention of "money" or "campaign finance" or any other synonym for them in the lot. The category that gets closest to money in politics is the one percent of respondents who said "elections/election reform" were the biggest problem facing the country. But, even that's generous given that "election reform" can also encompass voter ID measures, polling place hours or even how primaries or general elections are conducted.
And, it's not just the poll numbers. Think back to the 2010 and 2014 elections. In each, Democrats -- from the White House on down -- tried their damndest to make where Republicans were getting their campaign contributions an issue. Harry Reid, then the Senate majority leader, lambasted the Koch brothers almost daily from the floor of the U.S. Senate in 2014. And yet, it didn't seem to make much of a difference as Republicans romped in both elections.
That's not say the Republican wins should be laid at Democrats' strategy on money in politics. Because the 2014 national exit poll asked voters which of four issues -- foreign policy, health care, illegal immigration and the economy -- mattered most in deciding their vote, we have no way of measuring how much, exactly, campaign finance mattered. But, given how prominent Democrats made the need to regulate big money in politics in each of those campaigns, it's fair to assume that had that message worked, the party would have done better.
So, yes, if you ask the average voter whether they think there's too much money in politics, they will absolutely say "yes." But, that does not mean that when voters are making their minds up about which candidate or party to support that campaign finance factors in at all.
Hillary Clinton knows that. And she knows that if Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio or Rand Paul have a super PAC spending $150 million to bash her, she needs one spending the same to do it to them. It may not be pretty but winning politics rarely is.