clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The case for cautious optimism on campaign finance reform

Democrats are embracing an anti-corruption message. Can they put their money (raising) where their mouths are?

If you buy something from a Vox link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Protesters Outside The White House Demand An Investigation Into Donald Trump Jr.’s Meeting With Russian Lawyer
People protest against President Donald Trump in front of the White House on July 11, 2017, in Washington, DC.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

As the midterms approach, Democrats appear to be coalescing around an anti-corruption message.

It’s smart politics. For the first time since 2006, Democrats are running in a midterm election against unified Republican control in Washington. This gives them a unique opportunity to campaign as the “out” party. The simplest message for “out” parties is always to paint the “in” party as corrupt. And painting the Trump administration as corrupt is especially easy — a bit like painting a white wall white.

But it’s also tricky politics. It’s easy to run on an anti-corruption message when the other party controls everything in Washington. It’s harder to pivot to serious reform once your party gets back into power. It’s also hard to build something positive without falling prey to the easy nihilism of anti-system politics.

From a policy standpoint, Democrats are more serious now, in 2018, than they were in 2006, when they ran on a promise to, wait for it, “drain the swamp” (yes, like so much else in Trump’s rhetorical lexicon, there is a history).

Back then, Nancy Pelosi offered a vague promise to “break the link between lobbyists and legislation” on “day one,” which translated into modest and largely ineffective lobbying reform.

Today, Democrats are promising a small-donor campaign finance matching system, as the third and most transformative plank of Democrats’ Better Deal for Democracy program, developed by Maryland Rep. John Sarbanes.

But if Democrats are going to campaign on anti-corruption, they’d better be serious about following through if/when they get back into power. That’s where things get a little more uncertain.

The unbearable lightness of rejecting corporate PAC donations

There is a “new test” for Democratic candidates: Do they take corporate PAC money? At least 170 candidates have now said they won’t, including several seven sitting US senators — Sheldon Whitehouse (RI), Bernie Sanders (VT), Elizabeth Warren (MA), Maria Cantwell (WA), Kirsten Gillibrand (NY), Cory Booker (NJ), and Kamala Harris (CA). It’s a list thick with 2020 presidential hopefuls, who have their fingers to the political winds.

But how significant is this new test? The best estimates put the cost of the 2016 election at $6.5 billion. Of that total, $395 million, or 6 percent, came from corporate PACs. Put another way, 94 percent of the money in the 2016 election did not come from corporate PACs. Of the money that did come from corporate PACs, two-thirds went to Republicans. And the overwhelming share of it went to incumbents. So in forgoing corporate PACs donations, Democrats (especially first-time challengers) are not giving up all that much. Still, it’s a good start, even if it’s mostly symbolic.

Far more money comes from individual donors. Compared to $395 million in corporate PAC money, employees of corporations contributed more than $2 billion directly to campaigns in 2016 (more than five times the money that flowed through PACs).

Among individual donors, campaign finance law makes a distinction between “large” and “small” donors. Large donors are those who give more than $200, and the Federal Election Commission reports the names of these donors. Small donors enjoy anonymity. It’s a crude distinction, but so are all binary metrics. Still, there’s some logic. Most people do not have $200 lying around to give to a candidate. In fact, 99.7 percent of Americans are not “large” donors. Those in this elite sphere are different. They are wealthier. They have different views, particularly on taxation, economic regulation, and social welfare programs.

So perhaps a more substantive pledge would be to just take money from “small donors.” Some candidates boast that their average donation is very low. For Bernie Sanders, it was famously $27. Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic Senate candidate for Texas, says the average donation to his campaign is $33. But elections are costly, large donors give more money for the time, and few candidates can match the wide appeal that comes from their star power. Some candidates are more boring, and frankly, we can use some boring members of Congress here and there. Not everybody needs to set the world on fire or be a national sensation.

And while small donors are indeed coming out this year for Democrats in record numbers, most of that is simply a response to Donald Trump. As of the first quarter of 2018, Democrats had raised almost 20 percent of their money from small donors — an unprecedented share. But being out of power helps. Back in 2010, when Republicans were running against unified Democratic control, Democrats only got about 7 percent of their contributions from small donors, while Republicans got about 13 percent.

The winning (short-term) politics of anti-corruption

But enough with the complexities; back to the easy symbolism. As far as winning campaign issues, the anti-corruption message is a solid winner for the party out of power. It has been for decades.

The basic reason is simple. Overwhelming majorities of Americans consistently think that the system is basically corrupt, that their “vote does not matter because of the influence that wealthy individuals and big corporations have on the electoral process.” And they support reform, even going so far as to widely agree that “if we don’t take action to reform the influence of money over our politics, then our democracy is at risk.”

It’s rarely a top issue for voters, given the overwhelming power of partisanship in politics. But to the extent that voters are always dissatisfied with the system, the “throw out the corrupt bums” idea always resonates — particularly with marginal voters, who tend to be the most cynical about politics.

When all the bums in power are on the other team, it’s especially potent. And when the bums in power on the other team generate a never-ending drip of scandals, it’s even more powerful.

Perhaps the public is now so desensitized to scandal that the anti-corruption message will have limited effects. But the biggest power of the anti-corruption message may be its demobilizing impact on the supporters of the party in power. A barrage of anti-corruption talk might be numbing, but if it is, it will do most of its numbing on marginal Republican voters who might just stay home with a case of why-even-botherism, as they did in 2006.

The tricky (long-term) politics of anti-corruption

It’s not an accident that Pelosi’s 2006 slogan of “Drain the Swamp” became Trump’s 2016 slogan. “Out” parties have used the anti-corruption message as a cudgel against “in” parties forever, and the same metaphors often pass back and forth. In May, Chuck Schumer began using the familiar language, “The swamp has never been more foul, or more fetid, than under this president.” So it goes. But the more systemic the problem, the harder it is to fix. The more nihilism in the corrupt system, the harder it is to build back trust.

For Democrats, anti-corruption can almost certainly be a winning message as long as Trump is in the White House — not just because he stands as a shining exhibit A of everything that’s wrong with the system, but also because he wields a veto pen to prevent Democrats from doing anything about it. Perfect for messaging!

But the message does matter. Repurposing the “swamp” metaphors feeds the same anti-system, anti-Washington language that has hurt Democrats in the past, since Democrats are the party that sees government as a force for good.

Democrats also have to be careful to avoid promises that are either so small to be ultimately meaningless in tipping the scales (like rejecting corporate PAC donations) or, worse promises that they have no control over, like repealing Citizens United. Not only do congressional Democrats have no control over repealing the ruling (since it depends on the Court itself reversing the decision, or, even more unlikely, a deeply problematic constitutional amendment), but it’s a promise that ignores a campaign finance system that had some very serious problems prior to the 2010 decision.

It’s always better to promise something that is both feasible and meaningful, and something that builds up rather than tears down.

The Democrats’ “Better Deal for Our Democracy” is certainly framed as an anti-Trump document. The teaser frame is: “We are focused on taking back the power from special interests and getting rid of the pay-to-play culture of corruption, cronyism and incompetence embodied by the Trump Administration.”

But fortunately, the small-donor proposal is better than the rhetoric — it builds, and it inhabits the narrow Venn diagram overlap at the edges of both feasible and meaningful.

In the proposal, Democrats are committing to a small-donor matching system that would transform how campaigns are financed, by creating a six-to-one public match for every dollar raised in small-dollar contributions. Rather than spending their time calling rich people and attending fundraisers on K Street, individual members would have a greater incentive to do fundraising events back in their districts. As a result, they’d get a very different sense of the most important problems facing the country.

This would significantly alter the premium parties now put on candidate fundraising prowess in their candidate recruitment strategies. It could also pave the way for a new winning politics of economic fairness.

But if Democrats are serious, they’ll also have to build up in another way — they’re going to have to invest big time in congressional capacity. I’ve repeatedly made the case that the most important way for Congress to stand up the growing numbers of corporate lobbyists in Washington is for Congress think for itself. Currently, Congress too often relies on lobbyists for policy expertise because members don’t have the resources to recruit and retain genuine policy experts, and because Congress continues to underfund its own internal sources of expertise, like the Congressional Research Service.

In other words, even if members of Congress are raising money mostly from small donors, they’ll also need staffers who can develop policies without having to turn to industry-provided lobbyists.

Granted, that’s a much harder sell politically, so it probably makes sense not to campaign on it. Still, given that most people already think Congress has too many staffers, Congress might as well actually spend the money on adequate staffing. Again, reform has to involve building up, not just tearing down. Especially for Democrats, who still believe that government can make good policy and that not everything can be left to the private sector to figure it out.

The case for cautious optimism

Campaign finance reform is easy to promise and hard to deliver. It’s easy to promise to change the way Washington works, to rein in the special interests, to end the corruption when the other party is in power. But when your team gets into power, it’s hard to gamble on a new system when the old system was the one that brought you into power. Opportunities for fundraising change when you go from being the “out” party to the “in” party — it becomes harder to raise money from individuals, especially small donors, and easier to raise money from access-seeking PACs.

Still, something important is happening here. Democratic candidates, many of them first-time challengers, really are defining themselves around a politics of reform. And the Better Deal for Our Democracy plan contains the most transformative campaign finance reform proposal to achieve this level of buy-in from party leadership in a long time.

Rep. Sarbanes is right that the Democrats can’t just casually message on this. They have to commit. As he put it, “This reform message is not something you just wear for the evening, this is something you own.”

The road to reform is challenging. But momentum is slowly building. There is now, for the first time in more than a decade, a real chance that good politics and good policy can actually come together in democracy reform. This is significant.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.