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Money in elections

Some assert that self-financed candidates or those candidates who can demonstrate widespread support from small donors can allay concerns about the potential influence of donors on candidates and elected officials.

The Center for Responsive Politics notes that outside organisations alone have outspent more than two dozen candidates in the last three electoral cycles and were poised to outspend 27 in 2018.

However, it’s not always clear how useful that spending is: The 2012 election provides many examples.

Billionaire Republican donor Sheldon Adelson backed a super PAC supporting former House Speaker Newt Gingrich after Gingrich was no longer a viable presidential contender. It extended the Republican presidential primary at a time when Mitt Romney could have been raising money and consolidating support for the general election.

The libertarian, conservative PAC Americans for Prosperity, founded by the Koch brothers, often ran ads at odds with the Republican message. Other outside groups poured money into races that simply were not winnable.

By 2016, it appears that super PACs were spending for more calculated effect, focusing on competitive races. In addition, much of that “outside money” comes from the super PACs associated with the two main parties.

For example, in California’s 7th congressional district, outside groups spent approximately $9.1 million, in roughly equal amounts between the incumbent, Democrat Ami Bera, and challenger, Republican Scott Jones. The vast majority (85.7 percent) of the outside spending came from party organisations – the National Republican Congressional Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Congressional Leadership Fund and House Majority PAC – not from interest groups. Bera won re-election with 51.2 percent of the vote.

Some candidates use their own money for their campaigns to avoid appearing indebted to donors.

For example, wealthy Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott has given his current U.S. Senate campaign $38.9 million dollars – 71.3 per cent of all funds raised.

But self-funding does not resolve the democratic dilemma of responsiveness.

First, Daily Kos found that most self-financed candidates lose – and the more they spend, the more likely they are to lose the election. Generally, the only exceptions are candidates like Rick Scott, who already hold elective office.

Second, this way of improving responsiveness is limited because it effectively precludes anyone but the wealthy from holding office.

Small donors seem like a democratic solution to wealthy donors dominating election giving. Several recent campaigns – Bernie Sanders, Rand Paul, Barack Obama and now Donald Trump – have created effective small-donor fundraising machines.

More small donors means more widespread support, at least in theory, but that theory has limitations.

Small donors are not yet giving enough to counter big money. In fact, the share small donors contribute relative to big money is declining.

Moreover, political science doesn’t yet know enough about who small donors are – whether they are economically representative of the U.S. as a whole or even if they are more ideologically motivated to give, contributing to polarisation in politics.

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