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Everyone is a fat cat in American politics today

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Here’s some good news, of sorts, about money in American politics.

One of the quirks of current campaign cash flow is that every once in a while a desperate general election candidate attracts party loyalists – usually because he or she has a famous opponent whom the party considers a villain – and this desperate candidate ends up raising huge sums of money. The Washington Post has examples in an article about Marcus Flowers, a Democrat running against Republican U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene in Georgia:

Long-time contestants who have raised heaps of money have attracted attention in the past. In a particularly memorable Democratic cash bonfire, retired Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath lost nearly 20 points to Republican leader Sen. Mitch McConnell in Kentucky despite outspending McConnell by 25 millions of dollars. In New York, Republican John Cummings raised $11 million against Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D) and lost 44 percentage points.

There are arguments that it’s not a complete waste; after all, increasing Democratic turnout in Greene’s district will help Democrats run statewide in Georgia, even if it has no chance of defeating her. But mainly? Yes, in a world where an official party organization allocates campaign funds for nationwide elections based on a rational party-wide strategy, these hopeless candidates would be starved for funds.

But I have good news for people who care: it almost certainly doesn’t matter.

We live in an era of plenty of campaign finance, even though most of the mainstream ideas about money in politics come from an era of scarcity. The relaxation of laws and regulations has brought major new sources of money into play – some disclosed, some not. Technological change combined with partisan polarization has produced the phenomenon of the big little money – millions of dollars raised in small installments, seemingly donated mostly by party-loyal voters responding to partisan cues.

All in all, there is only a flood of money. Spending on the federal election alone in 2020 more than doubled the previous record; in fact, there was about as much spending on House and Senate campaigns in 2020 as the House, Senate and presidential elections combined in 2016.

This means that virtually all serious candidates in a competitive general election for the House of Representatives, the Senate or the office of a governor will be adequately funded. Of course, candidates could raise more, although there are still questions about the extent to which campaign spending is subject to diminishing returns. And as has always been the case, some candidates won’t make much money because they’re really bad at running for office.

But unlike the situation 30 or 50 years ago, it’s unlikely that (say) a House candidate with a good chance of winning couldn’t afford to mount a serious campaign. All of this is happening at a time of extremely partisan voting – meaning campaign spending is likely to have less of an impact than when more voters were willing to split tickets.

There is much more to be said about this new era of abundant campaign finance and how it should change debates about the regulation of money in politics, the effects of money on electoral competition, the concerns about corruption, the place of money in parties, etc. For example: are large, small funds directed by party signals and funneled through partisan portals correctly considered “party” money? If so, which groups within the party have increased or decreased their influence as a result? Should small donors be seen as party actors, as perhaps activists such as campaign volunteers? Or are they more like voters, capable of influencing the decisions of the parties during the primary elections but who are not really actors of the party strictly speaking, since their role is to react to the choices offered to them by the actors? party.

This means, among other things, that the money that might seem misallocated to hopeless candidates is more of a rounding error than a true opportunity cost to the party. The most effective use of small donations is still for lower-level candidates such as those running for state legislatures or school boards or other state and local elections. This is where your $200 (or less!) will have the most effect, and where I would redirect a lot of campaign money – especially that given to presidential candidates – if it were up to me.

But the Democrats almost certainly didn’t lose the 2020 Senate races in North Carolina and Maine because McConnell’s opponent in Kentucky wasted millions, and the Republicans are desperately spending money trying defeating Ocasio-Cortez in New York certainly didn’t cost them the seats they needed. to win the majority.

For better or worse – and I think it’s mostly for the better – there’s enough for everyone. And even that a part is wasted.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and politics. A former political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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