While Rick Perry is doing his best impersonation of the plague victim in Monty Python and the Holy Grail — I’m not dead! — let’s talk campaign finance.
The court decisions that put rich people and organizations in control of federal elections might actually be making presidential politics more democratic.
Money gets candidates like Perry to center stage even if they can’t muster enough small donations from regular people to keep a traditional campaign going. A dozen years ago, the condition Perry is currently in — not paying staffers on a presidential campaign in August of the year before the election — would be enough to make vultures circle.
Now, it’s just a mark of a change in strategy. The former governor’s campaign is out of money, but aides are spinning like crazy to explain why he can continue. One reason is obvious: His super PAC, built mainly with the largess of three rich donors, has collected some $17 million.
That should be enough to keep Perry in the contest.
Similar setups will keep a busload of other Republican presidential candidates on the stage. Instead of a winnowing process, the changes in campaign finance keep zombie candidates like Perry alive. As long as a candidate can attract a small number of very wealthy hosts, the super PACs they build can get the candidate to the finals — even if they can’t get much support from voters and small contributors.
It doesn’t matter: If you’re in the finals, you’re in the finals. If you can get on stage, it doesn’t matter whether you have $10 or $10 million in the bank. Voters will have a roughly equivalent chance to see everyone. Instead of farming that part of the job out to a bunch of people at a state fair in the Midwest or a diner in New England, the nation’s voters can get a number of people on stage to see how they measure up. Voters outside those early states might actually get a look at every candidate’s bid for office, their ideas and promises, the way they speak.
That is, of course, the goal of people who promote public financing of campaigns: to level the financial field so that voters can see all of the candidates and pick the one they like best.
America has figured out, accidentally, how to get the same effect by having a couple of dozen of the nation’s wealthiest political junkies throw down millions on their favorite candidate.
Every candidate who can find a rich groupie gets a podium.
U.S. Supreme Court rulings in the Citizens United and McCutcheon cases threw out overall limits on what a person can give in a single election cycle and many of the limits on whether and how organizations and companies can spend money in political races.
Citizens United, in particular, allowed unlimited amounts of money to be spent on behalf of candidates — so long as the candidate’s campaigns were not working in coordination with the political action committees doing the spending. That was the genesis, more or less, of the super PACs that dominate presidential races today.
Compare it to a Formula One race. If one team has all of the resources and shows up with a car that’s far and away the best one on the track, they win. But if several teams have the money to do the same thing — to put a top-level car on the track — the best driver wins.
Because so many candidates in the GOP primary have the money to stay in the race, there’s a chance that this nomination will go to the best candidate instead of the one who can buy the best field operation or the most commercials.
Perhaps you thought the rich people were in charge. So, come to think of it, did they.