That either of them even had a shot at the nation’s highest office shows just how important extreme private wealth has become in our political campaigns. (The same goes for former Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz, another billionaire who moved to set up an independent campaign last year before abandoning it.) And they are just the most obvious examples where the power of big money is too plain to miss. Other billionaires are shaping the race for the White House and Congress, often through super PACs and dark money groups that make their influence more difficult to spot. The need for a different system, one not captive to the whims of the super wealthy, has never been clearer.
Bloomberg’s late entry into the presidential race made his financial power seem especially jarring. With no preexisting support, he was able to launch a viable campaign in late November, vaulting past rivals who lacked similar resources but had been campaigning for months and, in some cases, had spent their professional lives in public service.
Over the next two months, Bloomberg spent roughly $500 million on ads, including a vast social media campaign. That spending helped fuel a rapid rise in the polls and a spot in the Feb. 19 Democratic debate. Though his performance there was widely panned, Bloomberg could still come in third in total delegates in the primary overall.
Bloomberg’s example is extreme, but it is hardly unique. In fact, for congressional, state and local races, where there is far less free media coverage, the ability to self-fund during at least the initial stages of a campaign is often essential.
The reality is that access to major donors — either sponsors or the candidates themselves — is an enormous factor in determining who gets to run for office and, more often than not, win. With rare exceptions, almost every viable candidate for federal office, from leading contenders for president to junior members of Congress, relies either on personal wealth or on the support of wealthy backers. Many also now depend on outside groups such as super PACs that can raise and spend unlimited money thanks to Citizens United and other court cases.
The rise of powerful outside groups is even more troubling from a small-D democratic standpoint than billionaires who fund their own campaigns, because these groups obscure the reality of who is really pulling their strings. Theoretically independent from candidates and often presented as cause organizations, most have close ties to the politicians they support, affording their biggest donors special access. At one super PAC fundraiser that President Trump attended in 2018 at his Washington hotel, donors who pledged $1 million or more were caught on tape plying him with requests for government favors. They included a Canadian billionaire seeking to influence U.S. trade policy.
These outside groups have helped the wealthiest donors dominate federal elections in recent years. During the touted small-donor boom of the 2018 midterms, just 3,500 big donors (who gave $100,000 or more) gave more to support federal candidates than all the estimated 7 million small donors ($200 or less) combined. In 2016, 400 megadonors ($1 million or more) gave more than 5 million small donors combined.
A lot of this money goes to super PACs, which have raised more than $5 billion to spend on federal elections in the decade since Citizens United made them possible. Super PACs are hardly vehicles for grass-roots support. Since the 2016 election, more than two-thirds of donations to them have been in increments of $1 million or more. Between 2010 and 2018, just 11 people gave them $1 billion — one of whom was Bloomberg, who also plans to spend big in the upcoming general election.
Of course, these are just the donations we know about. While super PACs legally must disclose their donors, anyone who wants to stay hidden can simply give to “dark money” groups that can legally keep the identity of donors secret. Thanks to legal loopholes perpetuated by Congress and the dysfunctional Federal Election Commission, dark money groups have been able to spend more than $1 billion since 2010 while hiding their sources of funding. Besides misleading voters, the lack of transparency allows corporate leaders to funnel profits into politics behind the backs of shareholders and opens a door for foreign money to sneak into our political system.
The outsize influence of big money has real consequences for decisions that affect everyone, often with disproportionate effects on people with the fewest resources. The last Congress, for example, was dominated by the push for repeal of the Affordable Care Act and a $1.5 trillion tax overhaul that cut taxes for the wealthy but will ultimately raise them for many low-income families, both avowedly donor-driven initiatives that enjoyed tepid public support at best. The tax bill in particular made it over the finish line in part because of explicit warnings that, as Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) put it, “financial contributions will stop” if it failed to pass.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Last year, the House of Representatives passed a sweeping democracy reform bill, H.R. 1, the For the People Act of 2019. H.R. 1 would boost the power of small donors by matching their contributions with public funds at no cost to taxpayers, thanks to an innovative funding mechanism. Had congressional candidates in 2018 run under this voluntary program, they would have raised more than half of their money from small donors. The bill would also better block super PACs from coordinating with candidates, plug dark money loopholes and overhaul the FEC, among other advances.
Money only went so far for Bloomberg and Steyer. But ironically, one of their biggest contributions to this election was to shine a harsh light on the need for reforms that amplify the influence of regular Americans and enable greater campaign transparency.