‘Big Money’ and the 2016 Elections

by Stuart Rothenberg April 24, 2015 · 9:54 AM EDT

Reporters love to write about money in politics, so I shouldn’t have been at all surprised by an April 20 Washington Post article suggesting campaign finance is becoming an issue in the presidential contest.

But a front-page story above the fold that relied on a couple of anecdotes and never came close to demonstrating that “big money” was becoming a crucial issue to voters?

I’ve been writing about and responding to questions about money in campaigns for decades, as have my colleagues over the years at Roll Call.  For many reporters, money is a go-to subject, in part because quarterly FEC filings give reporters hard data to report and discuss.  Spending by candidates, parties and “outside groups” certainly plays a role in campaigns and in election outcomes, so it’s an important facet of any election.

But it’s also true that many reporters (I don’t know if this is the case in the Post piece) and commentators believe the ocean of money in campaigns is obscene and an effort by the moneyed interest to buy legislators, so they are eager to write about perceived abuses. And that makes campaign finance a tricky subject, where the fine line between reporting and political analysis on one hand and editorializing on the other can be blurry.

The Post article began with two anecdotes — the mailman who landed a gyrocopter on the Capitol’s grounds to protest the current campaign finance system and a questioner in New Hampshire who asked New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie about money in politics — before jumping to a dubious conclusion: “The two moments, occurring 466 miles apart, crystallized how money in politics is unexpectedly a rising issue in the 2016 campaign.”

For journalists, one data point is an occurrence, two examples constitute a trend and three is a column, so I am very aware of the tendency of reporters to look for trends. But on any given day, I’m willing to bet, many issues are raised hundreds of miles apart, so you have to want to connect the dots to do so.

Campaign spending is and has been an issue since the mid-1970s, and the Citizens United decision and the explosion of super PACs certainly have fueled complaints for the past few years about money in campaigns. The fact that presidential hopeful Hillary Rodham Clinton talked about the issue certainly has added to the subject’s current salience.

Anyway, after asserting the issue was “rising,” the article went on to note, quite correctly, that critics of the current system have so far had a difficult time turning public dissatisfaction with the current system “into a platform that moves voters.”

The article then quoted the leader of a New Hampshire-based group that wants to elevate the issue of money in politics, who asserts, predictably, something big is happening.

In fact, what evidence there is in the article that the issue is emerging as politically significant is small and unpersuasive, though that did not stop the writer from citing a handful of people who are upset about the amount of money in politics and want to change the current system.

Perhaps the best piece of political analysis in the article came from former Federal Election Commissioner Bradley Smith, an advocate of deregulation, who said: “There remains a major public disposition to not like money in politics, but a real small group of people for which this is a dominant issue.”


Republicans ranted about George Soros’ spending during the 2004 cycle, while Democrats tried to make the Koch brothers a decisive issue in 2014. But voters looked past those messages both times, casting their ballots for more traditional reasons.

Most voters are motivated by partisanship and mood (that is, whether they are reasonably content with the status quo), but issues like the economy, taxes, spending, abortion, the environment and national security also can energize them.

Campaign finance reform, on the other hand, has rarely been a decisive issue to voters, though it certainly has been a frequent topic for editorial writers, reformers and especially under-funded, underdog candidates. Without a particular scandal that captures the public’s attention, that’s more likely than not to be the case again in 2016.