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Analysis: Democracy, Millionaires and Billionaires

One definition of an ideal democracy is that money doesn’t really count for much, that all citizens get a fair look at all of the candidates and that everybody who can vote gets to vote. The winner takes office. Our version isn't ideal.

Rick Perry speaks at a question-and-answer forum in Taylors, S.C., on May 8, 2015.

It’s funny what happens when you say the billionaires are keeping candidates alive long enough to allow more Americans a chance to choose their presidential nominees.

Some people get cranky. They say it’s not democracy. They use the word “oligarchy,” which is in a way a turn-up-your-nose elitist thing to do. And they have a point: The people with money are getting more than their fair share of influence over the election process.

A billionaire’s favorite candidate gets into the finals, whether that’s the favorite candidate of voters or not. That ain’t right, and it’s not very democratic.

On the other hand, any candidate who can attract a good billionaire — or a bad one — can stay in the race for president even if voters are not responding in the relatively dinky states that start this process — places like Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. 

Keeping campaigns alive for a while is more democratic in a limited but important way: It means voters in the later (and much bigger) states like Texas, California, New York and Florida get a chance to see a broader field of candidates instead of just the ones who didn’t get lost in the corn or the woods or the desert in one of those small states.

The U.S. Supreme Court remade campaign finance in federal elections, allowing unlimited money to flow into candidate-supporting super PACs and knocking down limits on what one person can spend over the course of one political cycle (the law still limits what one donor can directly contribute to a particular candidate).

One effect of the court’s work was to make billionaires more powerful than millionaires. Wealthy donors who dominated national races before the Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions are still around, but they are less important now than the super-rich — the donors who can give to super PACs. Those political action committees are barred from directly communicating with presidential campaigns, but their indirect support can prop up a candidate who would otherwise be forced to drop out.

Rick Perry, for instance. Money is so tight in his faltering campaign that the employees have been asked to keep working without pay. Most of them are loyal enough, as it turns out, to cinch up their belts and keep going.

Before the courts deregulated political money, a candidate like Perry would probably be packing for the trip home to Texas.

In most polls, the difference between his poll results and zero are within the margin of error. Other candidates are in the same straits. But like Perry, their super PACs might keep them going.

One definition of an ideal democracy is that money doesn’t really count for much, that all citizens get a fair look at all of the candidates and that everybody who can vote gets to vote. The winner takes office.

Another is that money counts, and things work better if you can at least get the candidates in front of as many voters as possible. And another holds that democracy is working when voters in the early stages of a campaign cull the herd of candidates before the real voting takes place.

The nation’s high court put the second version in place. Big bucks keeps low-octane candidates alive until the later stages of the primary fights; the money is out of control, but at least the voters have the final say.

When the millionaires were in charge, these things often ended in the early stages; the battle for money was tantamount to the first primary, and whichever candidate could attract the funding to keep going had a good chance at the nomination.

Now the billionaires have taken the wheel, and the game, while still rigged, is different: More candidates will be in this for a longer time, and more voters will get to say which candidate they want.

Money still has outsize influence. Politically interested billionaires are a small group, and if they don’t like a candidate, that candidate had better be attractive to a lot of less wealthy people. You can call it an oligarchy. But until the money is leashed or more citizens are inspired to vote or both, this is the American model of democracy.

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Politics 2016 elections Rick Perry