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Money in politics is a major story in the 2016 campaign. Here are 3 big open questions.

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It's looking more and more like 2016 will be a different kind of election, at least when it comes to the money. It's not just the sheer amount of it (though it will probably exceed the previous high of $6.3 billion). It's that more and more of it is coming from fewer people.

This observation has been brought into sharp relief by the fact that in the early presidential fundraising returns, half the $388 million contributed so far came from fewer than 400 families, with 62 donors giving at least $1 million. As the Huffington Post's Paul Blumenthal put it, "For the first time in more than a century, the majority of funding for a presidential election is coming in six-figure or larger checks from corporations and the wealthiest Americans."

It's now six years since Citizens United and related decisions ushered campaign finance into the Super PAC era. Things certainly feel different. And money in politics will probably continue to be a huge story in this election, since not only is it a kind of big deal, but also the steady release of fundraising numbers lends itself to the easy-to-produce, tick-tock, score-keeping kind of coverage.

While it's easy to get lost in the who's up, who's down, who's raising what stories, I see three major big-picture questions for the (sigh, 15) months of this political financing frenzy still ahead:

  1. What is truly different about this new campaign finance system?
  2. Who benefits and who is harmed?
  3. Is anything going to change?

What is truly different about this new campaign finance system?

Okay, so a bunch of rich people dominating the campaign finance system is not exactly a new story. Well before Citizens United, candidates were spending most of their time sidling up to big donors, asking if they could spare a dime (well, really more like 20,000 dimes).

In that (now rose-colored) past, if you were running you'd mostly host fundraisers with a few dozen millionaire types (lawyers, financiers, CEOs, etc.) and get them all to write four-figure checks. Now the millionaires feel left out, because the candidates are going straight to the billionaires for the nine- or 10-figure checks. Pity the mere millionaire who laments that "most of the people I talk to are kind of rolling their eyes and saying, ‘You know, we just don't count anymore.' "

At least, this is how the early stages of the Republican presidential primary have gone down. But will those poor millionaires get to count at some point — maybe in the general election? Or have they been marginalized for good? If so, that's a big deal.

Also, will billionaire BFFing as the dominant mode of fundraising also extend to congressional primaries? Will these same (or maybe different) billionaires who have been funding candidates for president start throwing their nine-figure checks into congressional races where they could make an even bigger difference? We shall see. If they do, this would be a notable change.

As a thought experiment to see how much things have changed in presidential primary politics, do this: Think about how the 2016 Republican field might look and might play out if we still had 2008 rules, and then think about what will be different this time.

Arguably, one reason for the record 17 aspirants to the GOP throne is that in the past, one needed a somewhat well thought-out plan for building an organization. Now one can have a plan that starts with "Step 1: Find a billionaire who shares my vision for making America great."

As the primary season chugs along, two other things may also be different with all this early billionaire money.

The first is that the early-state primaries (New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina) may matter less, since candidates will have money to stick around regardless of how they do. A reasonable possibility in 2016 is that Jeb Bush slumbers through the early primaries but gains momentum as his backers keep his campaign organizations healthy and other candidates fail to keep up the fundraising pace.

A second possibility is that money could buy (reticent) love. Perhaps Ted Cruz, who seems unlikely to win many endorsements and doesn't appear to have much initial appeal, could somehow spend enough money on ads and door-knocking to make himself popular. Or maybe Jeb figures out how to propagandize himself past his lackluster early showing.

My guess is that we'll see a long, drawn-out Republican primary, with multiple candidates sticking it out on their billionaire fundraising. If so, this multi-sided war of attrition will be something newish, a more intense version of what we sort of saw in 2012, with Newt Gingrich overstaying his welcome on the Sheldon Adelson family fortune.

To be fair, there are superwealthy donors on both sides, and several million-dollar donations have gone to support Hillary Clinton. One can wonder whether we would see a similar billionaire frenzy among Democrats if Clinton weren't the clear frontrunner.

So are the billionaires now in charge? Who else benefits?

At this point, I can confidently predict one clear set of winners and one clear set of losers. Beyond that, I can offer the scientist's gift of testable hypotheses and the pundit's gift of predictions.

The clear winner will be the same winner in every election: the campaign consultants and operatives, those esteemed men and women who, win or lose, get paid generous sums of money to advise and lead, to produce advertisements and place them on television screens, to set up door-knocking operations, and now (bonus!) claim expertise in the new and wild world of social media. More money raised is more money spent on consultants and advisers and fundraisers.

I'm eager to see stories about what these consultants and advisers are actually earning and what value they are actually adding (usually very little). I still harbor the hope that if some business-minded billionaires actually understood how much of their political contributions would be wasted on consultants getting rich by making and placing ads that have minimal impact, they might stop spending so much.

The clear losers, of course, will be the same losers every year we have private elections funded by a tiny slice of superrich people: 1) the wide range of issues that are marginalized because no serious billionaire wants to fund a candidate who talks about them; and 2) the vast, vast majority of voters who are not superrich white men and therefore are left to adjudicate between the preferred candidates of warring clans of said superrich white men.

But that's an old and continuing story, so move along. Let's instead turn to the actual onstage dramatis personae in the great electoral potboiler ahead. Who will gain and who will lose?

Here I'll go through four sets of actors:

  • The billionaires
  • The candidates
  • The outside groups
  • The parties

The billionaires

It's not easy to generalize about such a complicated bunch. But to generalize in spite of such cautions, billionaire donors probably care about four things in varying mixes: 1) electoral victory, 2) general ideology, 3) specific policy promises, and 4) their own ego. The conservatives mostly seem to be pretty staunch small government conservatives who don't like paying money in taxes, and the liberals mostly care about social issues and are not exactly clamoring for high taxes.

A measure of their power, then, is whether or not they get what they want. The ego stroking (No. 4) is pretty straightforward, and running for president selects for this kind of talent (Just consider the suck-up-itude the candidates are demonstrating toward the Koch brothers). Electoral victory (No. 1) is the result of many forces, of which spending is one piece.

No. 2 (ideology) and No. 3 (policy promises) involve the most visible tests of billionaire power. If billionaires have power, we should see candidates shoring up their ideological and policy positions to fit the hopes and dreams of the donors. Perhaps this is why candidates are newly talking up their opposition to the Export-Import Bank, currently a policy passion for the Koch Brothers.

I'll be looking out for more of this kind of stuff. These are the stories that will convince me it's billionaires selecting candidates as opposed to candidates recruiting their fighting billionaires.

The candidates

On the other hand, maybe this new world really does help candidates, especially challengers. In more traditional times, challengers would first labor to gain the support of key party leaders and/or coalition interest groups in order to have a shot at running. If all they now need is a billionaire or two to believe in them, perhaps they can run with more independence from the establishment than ever before.

In 2014, there were 102 single-candidate Super PACs, which collectively spent $51.9 million. These numbers were relatively small compared with the money spent by the party committees and other outside groups. But it's possible that in 2016, single-candidate Super PACs will become more important (thanks to supportive billionaires).

If so, maybe we will see more outsider candidates running, challenging incumbents, raising new ideas and new issues — issues they wouldn't have raised had they taken more traditional routes to running for office. One can at least hope. Alternatively, if billionaires are in charge, we might see more outside candidates who are basically running on their backers' agendas.

It is worth noting that post–Citizens United, the number of competitive Republican primaries (primaries in which challengers won at least 25 percent of the vote) has increased, though these are mostly challenges from the conservative right. Still, even at 50 Republican primary challenges in 2014 (46 House, 4 Senate), that still means that about 80 percent of Republican incumbents did not face a meaningful challenger. However, at the same time, the number of contested Democratic incumbent primaries has actually decreased since 2010.

Primary challenges

(Campaign Finance Institute/graph by Lee Drutman)

Or maybe we will see more single-candidate Super PACs supporting incumbents. In a recent paper, Robert G. Boatright, Michael J. Malbin, and Brendan Glavin note that one of the most significant development in the post-Citizens era has been the rise of the single-candidate Super PACs, "with the most significant growth among those allied with incumbent office holders."

So this is another one to watch: If we see more money going into single-candidate Super PACs, that may signal some shift in power toward the candidates. Unless, that is, those candidates are just mouthpieces for billionaires funding them, in which case the billionaires will be in charge.

Outside groups

In the past (pre–Citizens United), stricter limits on non-party, non-candidate spending limited what so-called "outside groups" could spend. Now those limits are gone. Ergo, some think outside groups (predominantly Super PACs) are taking away the power of parties. As the New York Times's Nate Cohn has argued, "Super PACs are helping to form an alternative campaign finance model that is eroding party control over the primary process."

So who are these outside groups? Consider a list of the top 15 spending political committees in the 2014 election, which I pulled from the Center for Responsive Politics.

party committees

(Center for Responsive Politics/graphic by Lee Drutman)

Note for a second that most of the top committees are party-run committees, which I'll come back to in a second. But looking at the list of non-party committees (i.e., true "outside groups"), note that most (e.g., US Chamber of Commerce, the League of Conservation Voters) are pretty closely aligned with the core of the party they support.  Others (most prominently the Koch-funded Freedom Partners) are basically synonymous with their billionaire funders.

So one ongoing question is how many of the "outside" groups are all that separate from the parties. Is the Karl Rove–run American Crossroads (not technically a party committee) really an outside group? Or even the National Rifle Association — is it really an outside group, since it mostly just supports Republican incumbents?

If one views parties as networks, the answer is not really. Moreover, as Boatright, Malbin, and Glavin note in the aforementioned paper, the groups increasing most in importance since Citizens United have been those "tied to party leaders." Meanwhile, they found a "decrease in the power of factional outsiders."

But 2016 is a new election. Perhaps billionaire-powered outside groups will be more active in knocking off party-supported candidates in primaries, or will pull candidates toward a particular ideology or set of policies. Certainly if the Koch network spends $900 million at cross-purposes with the Republican Party, that would be pretty significant, since it would be about 14 times more than the leading Republican group spent in the 2014 congressional elections.

However, my guess is that most of that Koch money (assuming the $900 million actually materializes) will go toward supporting the same Republican presidential nominee as the rest of the Republican money. My guess is that true outside groups will become less important in comparison to the parties, which I'm about to discuss. But we will see: If outside Super PACs (or 501(c)(4) organizations) are very active in supporting challengers and bending incumbents to their positions, I will have been wrong.

The parties

Much has been made about the parties being in decline. These assertions seem strange to me, given that in 2014 almost all of the committees that spent most heavily were all party or party-aligned committees (look again at the above chart). Arguably, the parties should be in an even better position in 2016, since contribution limits to parties were significantly increased as part of the CRomnibus deal, and early reports suggest at least the Republicans are taking advantage of this.

Since more of the tippy-top donors are on the Republican side, Republicans may wind up raising more money. But Republican donors also appear more divided, so it's also possible that, as in the past, more of the money on the right goes to outside groups, especially in the Koch Network of organizations, causing some internecine fighting on the right.

Still, I'm predicting that parties will play an even more active role in the 2016 election, particularly in primaries where party leaders have a favored candidate. My guess is that when we look at the final numbers, party committees will dwarf outside groups, even in the primaries, and especially among Democrats.

Is this the election where money in politics becomes a genuine issue?

Here's a puzzle: In poll after poll, overwhelming majorities of people say our campaign finance system is broken, and that rich donors and special interests are bribing our politicians. In other words, people hate the current system. But nothing happens to change it. In fact, it only grows less appealing to the vast majority of voters.

So, for example, a recent New York Times poll asked people the following question: "Thinking about the role of money in American political campaigns today, do you think money has too much influence, too little influence or is it about right?" The vast majority of respondents — 84 percent — said "too much." That includes 80 percent of Republicans and 90 percent of Democrats.

When asked whether the campaign finance system needed changes, 46 percent wanted to completely rebuild it, and 39 percent wanted fundamental changes (accepting that there are at least some "good things in the system"). So, grand total: 85 percent for significant rebuilding, with percentages roughly equivalent across parties.

These findings are nothing new. Yet poll after poll has failed to put a dent in our campaign finance system.

I have four theories as to why nothing happens as a result. I'll arrange them in the order of most cynical to most hopeful.

Most cynical is that politicians like keeping this system around because it provides a poll-tested scapegoat. Whatever unhappy result emerges from Congress, they can always blame the big money, and they can always cast themselves as the fighters against it (somehow).

Second-most cynical is that much as they may dislike the current system, all elected officials have figured out how to work it reasonably well — they got elected under it, didn't they? Any new system might undermine that advantage.

The most likely explanation for nothing happening is that money in politics has become a partisan issue, and Republicans (under strict orders from Mitch McConnell) have decided that they are somewhat benefited by the current system. Which is probably true. The optimistic spin on this is that all the money results in a bitter and implosive Republican presidential primary, causing some Republicans to wonder whether this system is so good for them after all.

The most optimistic explanation is that while the public may hate the system as it is, campaign finance has yet to become a priority issue for voters, and so politicians mostly dismiss it. This is optimistic because it suggests that if voters ever were to amp up their passion to match their disgust, something might actually change. And maybe the outrageous statistics of 2016 will stir that passion, especially now that Larry Lessig has entered the race on the premise of stirring up precisely that passion.

Still, even so, there's the partisan problem. It's conceivable that Democrats could pass a small-donor matching bill if they had unified control over the first two branches of government. But since that seems unlikely anytime soon, the key question is not so much what Hillary Clinton finally puts into the money-in-politics part of her plan to revitalize our democracy (which is so far short on specifics except for the unrealistic and thus purely symbolic constitutional amendment to reverse Citizen United). They key is whether any Republicans, particularly in congressional races, seize on this as a genuine issue, given public opinion on the subject.

On this last point, I'll be particularly curious to see whether the MAYDAY Super PAC, the Larry Lessig–founded organization devoted to making money in politics an issue, will have a bigger impact in 2016 than it did in 2014 (when it failed to do anything by getting in the game late and then just mostly supporting Democrats like any other liberal outside group). The creative Zephyr Teachout is now in charge. My free advice is that MAYDAY ought to spend all its money in Republican primaries, because if change is going to come on the campaign finance issue, it's going to be because enough Republicans have joined in support.

Ultimately, though, I remain skeptical as to how much voters are willing to prioritize this issue. Money in politics will continue to be an issue, and, yes, the public will be outraged. But that outrage won't translate into action and passion, in part because not enough politicians will make it a top issue, and few or no Republicans will get on board. Moreover, if Hillary Clinton pushes on this too hard, it could become even more of a partisan issue. So we'll be stuck with the same system for another round. But I'd love to be proven wrong.