When all is said and spent, the 2014 midterms will be record-setting in several dubious categories: The most expensive midterm election, with an estimated cost of $4 billion and counting. The midterm election with the most outside money, at $640 million and counting from non-candidate, non-party groups. And the midterm election with the most “dark money” at $140 million and counting from groups that do not disclose their donors.
The 2014 election may also go down as the most negative midterm election ever, as well as the most issue-free, in recent memory. (Pundits have taken to calling it the “Seinfeld election.”) It might also have the lowest turnout since 1942, falling even below the post-World War II lows of 1998 and 2002.
It’s a bleak moment, captured well by the Kenyan proverb: “When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.” So: Why don’t the parties and outside groups stop trampling the grass already?
After all, despite the panicked last-minute fund-raising pleas from both parties, it’s highly unlikely that all the extra money matters at this point. Money surely matters early in the election. It helps build a viable campaign infrastructure, and it helps to get the message out. It effectively determines who can run.
But at this point, what’s built is built. In the close elections where all the money goes, both sides have now saturated the advertising market with a ubiquity typically reserved for the marketing of flavored sugar water. We are well past the point of diminishing returns.
Yet what is true in the aggregate may not feel true in the trenches. Short term, it is classic arms race psychology. Given the current rules, neither side wants to risk a “campaign fund-raising gap.” Even if there are only three swing voters left in the entire state, who can afford to lose those three swing voters? They might decide the fate of the country. And both sides appear to have enough billionaire donors who are willing to keep throwing money in, convinced that either their personal fortunes and/or the fate of this country are at stake. Many must also be convinced that their assistance will be rewarded at some point.
Meanwhile, a growing cast of campaign operatives are only too happy to feed this frenzy. After all, somebody has to produce and place all these ads. Somebody has to advise and operate all these groups. And the more these operators can raise the existential threat level to apoplectic for their donors, the more money they can make during their version of the holiday retail season.
It is a system that feeds on itself, spewing out negative ad after negative ad about nothing, demotivating actual voters, and making that last inch of contested grass even more contested and trampled.
Medium-term, it’s clear that the elephants (and here I do mean Republicans) don’t seem to have any interest in campaign finance reform. As long as they have a filibuster-enabling 40 members in the Senate and a majority in the House that opposes reform, reform will be opposed. Republican leaders — especially Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the most vocal and aggressive defender of the current system — clearly think the status quo gives them the advantage. And they are probably right. The most generous donors are almost 2-to-1 Republican.
Democrats, meanwhile, are almost universally behind campaign finance reform. The Government By the People Act, a House bill (introduced by Maryland Representative John Sarbanes) that combines a $25 tax credit for campaign contributions with a 6-to-1 matching system (and a 9-to-1 matching system if the candidate forgoes PAC contributions), has 158 Democratic cosponsors, including House minority leader Nancy Pelosi. It also has one Republican cosponsor. The Senate version of the bill, The Fair Elections Now Act (introduced by Senator Dick Durbin, the majority whip), has 19 cosponsors (all Democrats). Democrats are even more unified in their support for improving campaign finance disclosure, a more limited but still significant step towards reducing the amount of money in elections by effectively eliminating “dark money.”
The public agrees with the Democrats here. Eight in 10 Americans support limiting money in elections, and a narrow plurality support publicly funded elections. Though the issue has never been a top priority for those outside of politics, it is certainly becoming more salient in this election. Democrats have been running aggressively against the Koch brothers, and commentators have provided a steady stream of outrage at the torrents of money. The fund-raising successes of Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig’s Mayday PAC, a single-issue super PAC devoted to ending super PACs, demonstrates many big donors are tired of being big donors.
Longer-term, the prospects for reform brighten a bit. The presidential contest of 2016 will almost certainly be, once again, the most expensive election in history. That should provoke yet another, likely bigger, drumbeat of outrage. But, because Hillary Clinton and her massive fund-raising machine will be running, there’s good reason to expect Democrat donors will be especially engaged. If Democrats outspend Republicans and gain the White House and the Senate, this could undermine McConnell’s argument to his colleagues that they benefit from the status quo while putting Democrats who support reform in power.
There is also a distinct possibility that the Supreme Court will soon do away with the existing “hard money” limits on direct contributions to candidates and parties, which would effectively remove all limits on giving (this is the direction in which jurisprudence is moving). Such a decision could have a quickening effect on public frustration, catapulting money in politics into a major campaign issue.
While campaign finance reform won’t happen in the next two years, at some point, all that trampling has to get awful tiring for the elephants, especially when it doesn’t get them anywhere. Fund-raising is a joyless business anyway, between the long hours of self-telemarketing and the more generalized ways that it undermines the legitimacy of the entire institution. At some point, it just can’t be worth the hassle. Especially given the high, high cost.
Lee Drutman is a senior fellow in the political reform program at the New America Foundation.