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The Power of Political Money Is Overrated

Author: Bradley A. Smith

“Does Money Really Matter in Politics?” The New York Times, The New York Times, 29 Feb. 2016,

Spending money in political campaigns is both necessary and good. Communicating to a mass electorate is costly, and studies have shown that higher political spending increases voter knowledge of candidates and issues.

Money is crucial to inform the public and give all views a hearing, but money can’t make voters like the views they hear.

Candidates bring different strengths and weaknesses to a campaign that affect their fundraising styles. Many progressive campaigns – think of Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 antiwar campaign, or the early campaigns of Teddy Roosevelt – have been funded mainly by large contributions, while others – George McGovern in 1972, or Bernie Sanders this year – have relied on small contributions. Similarly, many conservative campaigns – think Barry Goldwater, or Patrick Buchanan – have thrived on small donations, while some – Jeb Bush, for example – have relied on large donors. It is important that government stay out of the way and that, as former Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas said when arguing against campaign funding laws, “no point of view be restrained or barred.”

Money can be an equalizer even when it is unequal. Consider all the free media that Donald Trump receives. Because he’s colorful and controversial, the press covers his every utterance. His competitors, however, have to rely much more on paid media to reach voters. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton has raised far more than Sanders, but if we limited candidate spending, as some advocate, Hillary would already be taking a victory lap thanks to high name recognition, support from the Democratic Party, and a media that presupposed her nomination. Spending has helped Bernie compete, despite being outspent. And for thousands of Americans excited by Sanders’ campaign, contributing is the one thing they can realistically do to help.

But while money is critical to inform the public and give all views a hearing, this election proves once again that money can’t make voters like the views they hear. Jeb Bush is not the only lavishly funded candidate to drop out of the race – Rick Perry, Scott Walker and others also raised and spent considerable sums.

Americans have forgotten that prior to the 1970s, individuals could donate unlimited amounts directly to candidates, and corporations and unions were free to spend money on ads about candidates and issues with few restrictions. Today, our campaign finance system is highly regulated, yet few would say we’re fielding better candidates.

The evil of “money in politics” is vastly overstated; the good things money does are equally underappreciated.

DMU Timestamp: February 07, 2020 23:04

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