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What David Brooks Gets Wrong About Campaign Financing

By / 10.20.2010

Writing in yesterday’s New York Times, columnist David Brooks proposes to the media and campaign reformers, “Don’t follow the money” when it comes to spending in this year’s highly competitive mid-term elections. On one point, at least, Brooks is right. On a few others he is quite wrong.

Brooks is right that additional spending in over-saturated campaigns where both candidates are already well known to the voters has only a marginal effect on who gets elected. In fact, empirical research on the question “Does Money Buy Elections” conducted in 2008 by Americans for Campaign Reform, finds that across all House races since 1992, spending beyond $1 million or so simply doesn’t add up to more votes. What’s more, in races where both candidates crossed the $1 million mark, the higher-spending candidates was hardly more likely to win.

But Brooks neglected to mention the all-too-familiar case where one candidate, usually the challenger, has little ability to reach a credible funding threshold in the first place and so goes largely unconsidered by the public. Nor does he mention the scores of highly-qualified potential candidates who choose not to run at all because of the endless fundraising that makes up modern campaigns. Indeed, ask any big-time consultant or party player what they seek in candidates right out the gate, and it’s not ideas or experience or integrity but money. Small wonder that serious contenders for high public office today are frequently multi-millionaires with little or no political experience.

Finally, while Brooks may be right to dismiss as largely irrelevant the amounts of money being spent in close elections, he is naive to dismiss their source. Consider that lobbyists, executives, and PACs representing the financial, real estate, healthcare, communications, and energy/transportation industries contributed $1.2 billion to federal candidates in 2008 – nearly half the total raised. Indeed, with a majority of campaign cash coming from less than 1 percent of voters, it is little surprise that the American people have lost faith in Washington’s ability to work in the public interest.

Providing adequate funding to qualified candidates, in the form of small constituent donations and matching public funds, should therefore be the primary aim of those concerned with competition and accountability in Washington. The Fair Elections Now Act, which recently was referred out of committee in the House and is pending a floor vote, would do just that.

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