By this time eight years ago, a slew of Democrats and Republicans had formally announced their candidacies for president or formed official committees. That is not the case this year. One reason is money, and if that sounds counterintuitive, welcome to the new world of presidential politics.
In the past, candidates often found it necessary to start their campaigns at the beginning of the odd-numbered year before the election year. Given the limits on how much money any individual could contribute and the amounts needed to sustain a successful campaign, that gave the candidates as much time as possible to hit their targets.
What’s taking place in these early weeks of the 2016 cycle reflects the emergence of a new model for financing presidential campaigns. With it has come a flagrant disregard for the spirit, if not the letter, of the law. Politicians who are already hiring staffs, raising money, attending cattle calls and visiting the early states pretend, sometimes in tortured language, that they are not actual candidates.
Last week, my colleague Matea Gold wrote what may be one of the most important stories of the 2016 campaign, describing the new role that super PACs are playing in the candidates’ planning and preparation, and how this appears to be a clear distortion of campaign laws.
Begin with some history. Over a decade and a half, the campaign finance system of partial public financing established in the mid-1970s after the Watergate-era abuses has disintegrated, thanks to the actions of individual candidates and the courts.
That system was designed to limit what candidates could raise and spend, the goal being to prevent wealthy individuals from having outsize influence and to put all candidates — from front-runners to dark horses — on a somewhat even playing field. Incentives included public matching funds for the primaries and full financing for the general election.
Those days are long gone. Neither party has clean hands on this. Even politicians who have spoken high-mindedly about the corrupting influence of money in politics have contributed to what the system has now become.
Then-Texas governor George W. Bush started it, spurning federal matching funds for his nomination campaign in 2000. He still had to abide by the individual contribution limits (they still exist and in 2016 will be $2,700), but he could raise and spend as much as he wanted to win the nomination. Former Vermont governor Howard Dean followed Bush’s lead in 2004, as did then-Sen. John F. Kerry.
By 2008, no serious candidate for the nomination was looking to stay within the spending limits for the nomination campaign. This meant that what was once a more even playing field for all candidates now tilted in the direction of those who could create the biggest fundraising network.
In 2012, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney raised and spent nearly $100 million to win the GOP nomination. Former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Romney’s next closest competitor, was able to amass only about a quarter of that for his campaign.
This system of unlimited spending in the primaries produced new powerbrokers: the bundlers. Because individual contributions were still limited, enterprising people with their own networks would pledge to assemble $100,000 or $250,000 or more for a particular candidate by collecting from friends, associates and others. These bundlers still exist and are still important.
If by the beginning of the 2008 campaign the system for financing the primaries was in tatters, President Obama took it a step further by the end of that election. He not only rejected federal funds in the primaries to raise and spend at will, but also turned his back on the federal funding of his general election campaign — the first candidate to do that post-Watergate. In 2012, Romney did the same.
Previously, candidates got a big grant from the government for the general election (in 2008 it was in the neighborhood of $85 million) and therefore didn’t have to waste any time raising money. It also meant the two candidates had roughly equal resources for the final months of the election. Obama knew he could raise far more on his own than the government was prepared to give him. He also knew that could leave his opponent, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), at a sizable financial disadvantage.
So that’s one part of what brought us to where we are today, the changes wrought by the politicians themselves. The other agents of change have been the courts: the Supreme Court and other courts. They ushered in the era of super PACS, the latest innovation in presidential campaign financing.
In 2012, candidates began to see super PACs as an element of a successful campaign. A single donor prepared to put $5 million or $10 million into a super PAC supporting an otherwise financially struggling candidate could keep him in the race far longer than ever before. Or the super PAC could help try to fend off the opposition with a barrage of negative ads that didn’t have to be billed to a candidate’s campaign.
Ask former speaker Newt Gingrich or former senator Rick Santorum if they could have run as long as they did in 2012 without their super PAC angels. Or ask Romney if he would have been successful in knocking back those two challengers without the negative ads his super PAC threw at them.
What has changed this time is the degree to which super PACs are central to the thinking of the candidates. If they were an add-on in 2012, they are now virtual subsidiaries to the main campaign operation.
Candidates anticipate that a substantial amount of the total resources they can bring to bear will be through their super PAC. These super PACs will play a significantly larger role than they did in 2012, particularly in the buying and airing of TV ads. They will be run by the most trusted of advisers.
It’s widely believed that super PACs must operate with complete independence from a candidate’s campaign. But the walls between them are quite porous. An official candidate’s campaign team cannot consult and coordinate how his or her super PAC spends its money. Nor can it share strategic information. Candidates can help to raise that money, with some restrictions.
If no one is a declared candidate, as is the case today, the rules are even looser. That is one reason that so many politicians this year are not declaring candidacies yet, even if they walk and talk like candidates. Instead, they are spending considerable time lining up those super PAC angels, courting them with detailed descriptions of their paths to victory and directly asking them for huge amounts of money.
All of this makes a mockery of the current rules. In the absence of enforcement, the candidates are redefining how to play the game, and even more than ever are highlighting a political arms race that empowers the wealthiest over the average voter.