But surely there were higher purposes to which hedge fund magnate Tom Steyer could have devoted $341.7 million than his vanity presidential campaign.
If money could buy public office as straightforwardly as many believe, we’d be talking about senators-elect Amy McGrath (whose campaign cost $73 million), Jaime Harrison ($104 million), Cal Cunningham ($45.9 million), Steve Bullock ($38.6 million), Sara Gideon ($47.9 million) and a reelected Doug Jones ($24 million). Each one of them lost to a Republican who spent less.
As suggested by the GOP’s retention of at least 50 votes in the Senate, despite massive Democratic spending, cash wastage this year occurred disproportionately on the blue side of the ledger. As of mid-October, Democrats and affiliated groups had spent $6.9 billion, compared with $3.8 billion for the Republican side. Democrats barely hung on to their House majority, losing at least 10 and possibly up to 13 seats to the GOP; the well-funded Democratic bid to tilt state legislatures also struck out.
Yes, things might have been even worse for Team Blue if they had spent less. Still, it’s instructive that money did not buy love within their own ranks, either.
“Mr. [Mike] Bloomberg has every right in the world to run for president of the United States,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) grumbled in February. “But I don’t think he has the right to buy this election.”
What Sanders should have said was: A fool and his money are soon parted. Bloomberg spent more than $1 billion of his $55 billion personal fortune and achieved nothing, except, perhaps, to dent his political legacy.
Sanders couldn’t buy the Democratic nomination, either. Though a self-described democratic socialist who raised most of his money from small donors, Sanders had burned through $163 million as of the end of February, in contrast to President-elect Joe Biden, who spent just $76 million in that crucial period, which concluded with Biden en route to the nomination after winning South Carolina.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg also outspent Biden, in also-ran campaigns funded by donors who believed — many of them — that there was no way Old Joe could ever beat President Trump.
All Biden had going for him was the support, and the political wisdom, of actual voters, who held, as the New York Times put it, “the firm belief . . . that Mr. Biden would be the party’s strongest challenger.”
No doubt Biden’s ultimate victory in November was aided by his ability to match Trump’s campaign dollar for dollar, at around $1 billion each. (Though Bloomberg found a way to expend $100 million on futile efforts to turn Florida, Ohio and Texas blue.)
Still, campaign-finance reformers should learn from the 2020 experience: If cash is not the decisive factor in elections, then there are limits to how much it can corrupt them.
Gideon’s Senate campaign against Maine Republican Susan Collins illustrates that point, according to a Nov. 17 New York Times report documenting the negative response of Mainers, including Democrats, to the barrage of ads funded from outside the state.
“It was like being a local in Woodstock in 1969,” Colby College professor Dan Shea told the Times. “When it first started, it was exciting and fun, but by the end, it was muddy and dirty. My guess is that there were diminishing returns by September.”
Perhaps there was a time when this would not have been the case — when candidates could expect more bang for the buck, in terms of influencing persuadable voters.
In today’s polarized partisan environment, many voters have their minds more or less made up well in advance of Election Day.
Any activity that doesn’t directly mobilize party faithful might not be worth the cost. Certainly parties and candidates must consider that possibility, among others, as they try to restore some semblance of efficiency to campaign budgets. Come to think of it, budgetary discipline would be a pretty good function for a party organization — you know, that thing we used to have, before billionaires, interest groups, consultants and PACs.
Donors, especially small donors, owe themselves a rethink, too. Sometimes a political fundraising appeal can be an invitation to civic engagement — but sometimes, it’s a form of exploitation.