As a general rule, Democrats support campaign finance reforms to reduce the influence of wealthy donors and corporations, while Republicans oppose those reforms. That makes things easier for Republicans at election time, since they can accept all the help they want from special interests without experiencing any cognitive dissonance.

For Democrats it’s more awkward, but what they usually say when asked about their big-dollar fundraisers is that while they’ll aggressively pursue reform once they’re elected, if they want to get elected they can’t “unilaterally disarm.”

That now appears to be the position being taken by Joe Biden, at least with regard to super PACs, the lightly regulated vehicles for unlimited donations which can be spent on presidential campaigns:

Joe Biden is apparently dropping his long-held opposition to the creation of an outside group that would supply an infusion of money to benefit his campaign, a recognition that financial struggles are becoming a major problem for his presidential prospects.
Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s deputy campaign manager, released a statement Thursday afternoon saying that Biden will reform campaign finance if he is president, but in the meantime, he will open the door to outside money. [...]
Biden allies began meeting weeks ago to discuss launching a super PAC. Those discussions emerged amid dissatisfaction about some components of Biden’s campaign, as well as worry that he was being naive about what would be required to counter Trump’s attacks while simultaneously making his own case.

Biden and his allies think this is something he can’t do without. But is that really true?

A look at the recent past might make you think so. In 2016, outside groups spent more than $100 million on Donald Trump’s behalf and more than $200 million on Hillary Clinton’s, making up a significant portion of overall campaign spending. Without that money, you might think, a candidate couldn’t compete.

Expect there are many reasons to believe otherwise. Let’s start with the primary, where the whole reason Biden is contemplating reversing his position on super PACs is that his fundraising trails that of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, both of whom not only don’t want outside help but refuse to even do fundraising events for high-dollar donors. (If you want to write a check for the legal limit of $2,800 they’ll take it; they just aren’t going to ply you with canapés to get you to do it.)

As of the last reporting period at the end of September, Sanders had $33 million in the bank, Warren had $25 million, and Biden had $9 million. Despite being the “establishment” candidate in the race, the former vice president was trailing the candidates who are depending on repeated small contributions from a larger group of donors.

That doesn’t mean that Biden could just turn off one spigot and expect the money to flow in equal measure from another. Sanders and Warren are succeeding in raising all that grass-roots cash because they have a wide base of enthusiastic supporters. Right now it appears that Biden’s support is as broad as theirs, but not nearly as deep; he has millions of Democrats who will tell a pollster he’s their choice, but they aren’t so jazzed about him that they’re opening up their wallets. That has made him much more reliant on large donations from fewer people.

He also may have concluded that accepting help from a super PAC might generate a day or two of bad headlines and charges of hypocrisy, but it’s worth it to get the help. But there isn’t much evidence to suggest that’s the case. More money is always better than less money, of course, but in the primaries it’s hard to imagine that whatever problems Biden has can be solved with a bunch of ads being dropped on TV in Des Moines or on Facebook (since super PACs can’t coordinate directly with candidates, they usually dump most of their money on ineffectual advertising).

If instead he’s looking forward to the general election, that could be a different story, provided that the pro-Biden super PAC spent its money wisely, which is never a guarantee. But there, too, the same question comes up: Is money going to be a problem for the Democratic nominee?

Given the enormous sums Democrats are already contributing to primary candidates, it’s likely that the party’s nominee will have all the money they need, as Democrats desperate to be rid of Trump contribute whatever they can. And after a certain point, a few extra million — or even a few extra hundred million — may not make much difference. Don’t forget that Clinton outspent Trump in 2016 by more than $300 million, but he still won.

And consider this: Trump and the super PACs supporting him have already spent an incredible $171 million on the 2020 campaign. He has spent more than $25 million on Facebook and Google ads alone. And for what? He trails all the leading Democrats in many polls, his approval rating is stuck around 40 percent, and he’s about to be impeached.

As far as campaign sins go, accepting the help of a super PAC is pretty minor, and I don’t doubt that Biden would sincerely prefer a system in which they didn’t exist. But if he’s going to become the Democratic nominee and then the president, it’ll be because he was the best candidate. Not because he was saved by a super PAC.

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