Bernie Sanders is furious at the sight of the richest Americans spending billions of dollars on this year’s elections, a development he believes is turning American democracy into a sham. “We are talking about a rapid movement in this country toward a political system in which a handful of very wealthy people and special interests will determine who gets elected or who does not get elected,” he says.
Actually, we are talking about a system in which a handful of very wealthy people and special interests do not determine who gets elected. Sanders may think billionaires are buying elections. But any who have that purpose are finding that elections are not for sale at any price.
Ask Jeb Bush, who entered the campaign with a solid record as governor of Florida, a lot of support among establishment Republicans and one of the most famous family names in American political history. Thanks to his deep-pocket donors, he also had more money than King Midas.
Jeb and the super PAC supporting him spent some $150 million, far surpassing any of his GOP rivals. But he quit the race last month after finishing way back in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Ben Carson also discovered that money can buy a lifetime supply of zilch. The $51 million he spent in Iowa and New Hampshire worked out to a staggering $2,154 for every vote he got. Ted Cruz spent just $472 per vote. Donald Trump spent $87 (and just $12 million in all).
Carson blamed his dismal showing on having “the wrong team in place, people who probably had different objectives than I did.” But anyone who watched Carson flounder in interviews and disappear in debates has to figure a different team would have gotten similar results. Rick Perry and Scott Walker, who had plenty of money for the race, washed out long before the voting started.
Trump has proved so adept at commanding voter interest and media coverage that campaign ads are almost beside the point. He’s not the only candidate proving that the right message is worth a lot more than a big war chest.
There is also a guy named Sanders, who has mounted a stiff challenge to Hillary Clinton despite a mismatch of resources — drawing big, enthusiastic crowds and winning nine states so far. He’s in second place not due not to inadequate funds — he spent $6.1 million in the Super Tuesday states, compared with her $7.8 million — but to his inability to appeal to African-American and other Democratic constituencies.
This spectacle is frustrating to those who have laid out huge sums in hopes of advancing their causes. The billionaire Koch brothers budgeted hundreds of millions of dollars for this year’s elections, but Charles Koch laments that the Republican presidential candidates have mostly ignored the issues he cares most about. “You’d think we could have more influence,” he lamented to the Financial Times.
Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson knows how easy it is to waste money. In 2012, with the stated goal of defeating Barack Obama, he gave $20 million to a super PAC that supported Newt Gingrich and $30 million to one backing Mitt Romney.
So far this time, Adelson has mostly kept his wallet closed. Some operatives, Politico reports, say “he may be withholding massive checks from groups affiliated with the GOP establishment because the party’s congressional leaders didn’t aggressively support an online gambling ban he pushed for in 2014.” The Kochs can empathize.
All this should give pause to those who accuse the Supreme Court and the politicians of turning democracy into a garish auction where the highest bidders typically get their way. Campaign cash is one means for politicians and their supporters to put their case out in front of the public. But Sanders and Trump have demonstrated that it’s not the only way. And several other candidates have shown there is no substitute for a compelling message.
In the old days, the super-rich were said to flaunt their wealth by lighting cigars with $20 bills. These days, they may do it by lavishing millions on politics, a gesture that appears to be even more wasteful. At least the old-timers got a good smoke.
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