A new poll conducted by The New York Times reveals that 87% of voters would like a fundamental or even drastic overhaul of the nation’s campaign finance system. Super PAC billionaires pulling the strings apparently appeals to only 13% of voters.
I have followed most campaign finance “reform” movements since 1974. Most flow from good motivations and most try to clean up corruption in politics. But all of them only deal with one side of the problem: the supply of money, specifically the supply in large chucks from rich people who often want more government favors to make them richer.
But there can never be meaningful campaign finance “reform” until there is reform on the “demand” side of campaigns.
It is important to realize that campaigns raise large mountains of cash not just to pay for fancy meals, clothes and consultants’ fees (although some goes toward that). And, in fact, very little money is raised to directly bribe voters or judges or election officials. The vast, vast majority of campaign money is raised in order to be spent on communicating messages to voters. This used to come primarily through TV and radio ads, direct mail, billboards, yard signs, bumper stickers and low-paid canvassers walking door-to-door. Now, campaigns still have to pay for all those things, plus websites, YouTube videos, podcasts, Facebook ads, Google ads, and a billion internet strategists who come up with a zillion new messages, daily.
Political candidates who actually want to win elections in order to create good public policy have to communicate as much or more than their opponents. Reformers are never going to reform unless they deal with this problem.
40, 30 or even 20 years ago, the problem could have been solved by requiring FCC licensed TV and radio stations to give billions of dollars worth of ad time to candidates. But these days, non-aligned independent voters who actually decide elections don’t watch much broadcast TV other than The Voice and they certainly don’t listen to talk or news radio; they are consuming digital media that isn’t regulated by the FCC.
I’m afraid there are only 2 solutions:
Option one is the status quo. Not much of a solution, but a highly likely outcome.
Option two is getting tax payers to pay for the campaign communications for all viable candidates. This would mean spending billions of tax dollars on campaign ads, messages, websites, videos and 30 second TV ads.
The problem with this is that it’s easy for a candidate to run on the platform of “My opponent wants to waste billions of your hard earned tax dollars on deceptive, slimy TV ads, whereas I want to spend your tax dollars on good schools and roads.” And then voters vote against those who are pushing for campaign reform.
Unfortunately, the 87% of Americans who want to get big money out of politics are as committed to “reform” as the obese are committed to losing weight (as long as they don’t have to consume fewer calories). Neither group is actually willing to pay the price to create real change.
TJ Walker is president of Media Training Worldwide. You can find his online training courses here. https://www.mediatrainingworldwide.com/online-training.html