Campaign finance limits take choices away from voters

December 17, 2019   •  By David Keating   •  

This piece originally appeared in Washington Examiner on December 17, 2019.


It happens every presidential election. A promising candidate joins the race, makes a splash, and surges in the polls. But they can’t sustain the momentum, and their popularity dips. With diminished media exposure, fundraising stalls and the campaign shuts down. All before a single vote has been cast.

Sen. Kamala Harris of California is the latest candidate to suffer from our misguided campaign finance laws. She ended her campaign for president on Dec. 3. “Ms. Harris said she would have needed to raise $5 million in two weeks,” the New York Times reported, “a goal she described as impossible. ‘I just don’t want to bullshit you,’ she said.”

While she was lamenting the inability to raise that much money now, consider what happened 52 years ago before contribution limits were imposed.

Sen. Eugene McCarthy, a Democrat from Minnesota, entered the race for president in November 1967, considered impossibly late today, and against an incumbent president in the Democratic primary. He raised about $10 million in today’s dollars from a handful of donors who opposed Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War. Thanks to that support, McCarthy quickly built a campaign. He capitalized on growing anti-war and anti-Johnson sentiments and performed so strongly in March’s New Hampshire Democratic primary that Johnson withdrew from the campaign.

No one has forced an incumbent president from the race since then.

Unfortunately for Harris, she can’t restart her campaign by raising money like McCarthy did and letting Democratic voters decide who they want as their nominee. Political campaigns are famous for the large amounts of money needed to advertise to the millions who vote in presidential elections. It was impossible for Harris to raise $5 million in two weeks when she was at a political low, and no one could give more than $2,800 for the race.

In other parts of our political system, money flows freely. The First Amendment prevents the government from limiting the speech of individuals, independent organizations, and self-funding candidates. As a result, some candidates labor under tight restrictions, while others do not.

Billionaires such as Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer can put their own money behind their campaigns. People who pool their funds independently of the candidates can also raise and spend without limit to persuade your vote. But direct support for candidates is tightly restricted.

Rival candidates often accuse the biggest spender in the race of “buying” the election or drowning out other voices. But when a candidate spends big, voters are often unmoved. Just ask Jeb Bush about that.

Bush’s supporters raised so much money for the 2016 race that they didn’t know what to do with it. Their lavish spending went so far, they even paid for video players with a digital mailer touting Bush to be sent to voters in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Bush finished 6th in Iowa and 4th in New Hampshire. He withdrew from the race after another spending blitz failed to make an impact in South Carolina.

Bush was no anomaly. The most expensive Senate race in history was won by the candidate who was outspent, as incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz fended off Beto O’Rourke’s challenge in 2018. Rising Democratic star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez unseated Rep. Joe Crowley after being outspent 18-to-1.

The fear of money buying votes is misplaced. Voters have no trouble casting votes against big-spending candidates they don’t like or that they disagree with. We should be more concerned about candidates who drop out before the primaries even begin. Only then are voters deprived of a choice.

Many candidates have it much worse than Harris. She was able to raise enough money to at least get started. An incumbent senator from one of the largest and wealthiest states who rose to prominence during the confirmation hearings for Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Harris had more opportunities than most to introduce herself to voters. Yet even these advantages were not enough to make it to the first caucus or primary.

Fewer restrictions on campaign fundraising would give more candidates a chance to compete. That will give more choices to the people who need them: voters.

Every year, credible candidates are forced to drop out simply because they can’t keep the lights on. Many more people never even run for office. This is not an inevitability. It’s a product of our misguided campaign finance laws.

David Keating

David Keating