This piece originally appeared in the Washington Examiner on July 13, 2020.
We should have learned our lesson by now. In elections, it’s not what you pay; it’s what you say.
Hillary Clinton spent almost twice as much as Donald Trump only to lose the 2016 election, even while independent groups supporting Clinton outspent those supporting Trump by 3-to-1. In the spirit of making the same mistakes, many 2020 hopefuls have taken “you get what you pay for” as a given. Billionaire Tom Steyer dumped more than $300 million from his own pocket into his campaign and failed to score a single delegate. Michael Bloomberg somehow did both better and worse, spending over $1 billion to score 49 delegates at $22.6 million apiece.
Candidates for Congress are now taking their turn at proving what money can’t buy as primary results roll in. In New York’s 17th Congressional District, former federal prosecutor Adam Schleifer had spent over $4 million by June 3 for a House bid that apparently cost far less. His opponent Mondaire Jones spent only about $786,000, and that was enough for him to win the primary despite his concerns about “[having] to compete with the son of a billionaire.”
Not even the advantages of incumbency — higher name recognition, better political networks, and support carried over from previous campaigns — enable candidates to “buy” their win. In New York’s 16th, Jamaal Bowman, whose campaign spent merely $626,000 by June 3, won nearly 61% of the primary votes, despite longtime incumbent Eliot Engel’s campaign shelling out over $1.3 million by the same date.
Perhaps the award for most money not-well-spent goes to Amy McGrath, whose campaign had spent over $21 million to just barely prevail over Charles Booker in the Democratic primary for Senate in Kentucky. Booker’s campaign expenditures came in at just over $500,000. Even though McGrath managed to scrape together a last-second victory, she won only a hair more votes for 42 times the cost.
All of these examples show that money can’t buy elections. It is curious that politicians such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren make such a spectacle of rejecting contributions from PACs and denouncing support from super PACs. These pledges perpetuate the debunked myth that money buys elections, a myth that has motivated some of the most restrictive laws governing campaigns.
Maybe it is time to eliminate contribution limits and let citizens give what they want to candidates and political parties. That’s the system we had before Congress imposed contribution limits in the 1970s. With that system, underdog candidates have a better shot at raising enough resources for a competitive campaign.
Speech to a mass audience costs money, and the First Amendment protects the right to support campaigns. In that sense, a restriction on your contributions is a restriction on your speech. If voters think a candidate is in the pocket of some special interest, they can vote for someone else.
Traveling, advertising, and even yard signs are not free. Ditching contribution limits could have a positive effect on the democratic process by making it easier for candidates to get the resources they need. Fewer candidates would have to drop out early simply because they can’t pay the bills. Research also shows that races with more spending lead to voters who are better informed and more engaged.
This “money buys elections” myth does a lot more than ignore reality; it cultivates policies that infringe upon the rights of individuals to engage in political advocacy and gives a huge edge to household names belonging to celebrities and renowned politicians.
Candidates need support, and it is your right to offer it to them. Contribution limits serve only to reduce options on the ballot and suppress speech, running in stark contrast to the First Amendment. Money can’t buy love, and it can’t buy elections, but your right to be civically engaged is priceless.