Buying American Elections?

About this Episode

Guests
Paula Baker, Marc Horger, Steven Conn

Money and politics. While some think these two should be like oil and water, the simple fact is they’re not. And in the wake of the 2012Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court, Americans have worried over whether money really should equal free speech. Join hosts Leticia Wiggins and Patrick Potyondy as they ask guests Paula Baker, Marc Horger, and Steven Conn about the influence of dollars on the ballot box in U.S. history. At the core of this intriguing discussion is this: do huge bags of money really affect national politics as much as many fear? The answer is more complicated than you might think.

Check out a lesson plan based on this article: Voting Restrictions in a “Democratic” United States

Cite this Site

Leticia R. Wiggins, Patrick R. Potyondy , "Buying American Elections?" , Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective
June, 2015
https://origins.osu.edu/historytalk/buying-american-elections?language_content_entity=en.
June, 2015

Transcript

Patrick Potyondy 

Welcome to History Talk, produced by Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective at Ohio State University. This is the history podcast for everyone and I'm your host, Patrick Potyondy.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

And I'm your other host, Leticia Wiggins. To start off this episode, as you know, Patrick, I want to begin with a simple question. What's the first thing that comes to your mind when I say money in politics?

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Well, for me, I gotta say corruption. I think of smoke-filled back rooms, politicians making deals, lobbyists taking those politicians out to kind of extravagant dinners and parties and things. I also think of the nineteenth century robber barons. I think of Nixon's dirty tricks and Watergate. Those are the first things that come to mind.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

I see what you're saying there. And another answer might have been the Supreme Court case, Citizens United from 2010, which, to simplify it greatly, ruled that money equals free speech. The case as well as the fraught history that seems to develop whenever you mix money in politics sparked popular outrage since it redefined the landscape of campaign finance reform.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

There certainly is a lot going on recently in this arena with political action committees, or PACs, and even super PACs, making headlines and featuring on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Things are so bad that the leader of the Federal Election Commission has called the organization, charged with overseeing how money is spent in elections, "worse than dysfunctional." But money in politics is inevitable too. Campaign managers need to be paid, advertisements purchased, etc., etc. It's certainly not all doom and gloom, right?

 

Leticia Wiggins 

Well, hopefully History Talk can help. On today's show, we've asked three specialists on United States history to help us make sense of what's been happening with campaign finance reform, not only recently but throughout American history, and maybe they can help us understand why all of it matters to the average citizen too. So stay tuned.

 

Dr. Steven Conn 

I'm Steven Conn. I'm one of the editors of Origins.

 

Marc Horger 

I'm Marc Horger. I'm a senior lecturer in the Department of Human Sciences at Ohio State University, and have written on American politics for Origins a few times recently.

 

Dr. Paula Baker 

I'm Paula Baker. I teach in the history department and study American political history.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Alright. Thanks for joining us all today. So money and politics have been intertwined in the American political system from the very beginning, right. So we're kind of wondering, what have been the moments of big change in the relationship between political campaigns' money, and we're kind of looking for maybe a little bit of a roadmap here to get us started. And, Paula, if you wanted to start us off, maybe?

 

Dr. Paula Baker 

Yeah. Okay. I guess I would give us three phases.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Oh, excellent.

 

Dr. Paula Baker 

The first would start us out maybe in the 1790s and would give us a politics of patrons. Where, here I think of, there's just wonderful stuff that Alan Taylor did on something that he called, "making interest," where candidates, generally the local notables, went out, hired people of the middling sort to go out and campaign for them, assembling letters in the meantime, indicating that they had all of this support, so on and so forth. And then election day would arrive and out would go the slaves to pick up the voters, with the slaves well stocked with liquor, on their way to voting places.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Always a good way to get votes.

 

Dr. Paula Baker 

Liquor was, even more than kind of payoffs with inside deals on land, liquor was the real draw and off we went. That, as we might imagine, got to seem a bit less than, let's say, small-r republicans, something that was suitable to the citizens of a new republic, and we move on to a politics of patronage rather than patrons, where the people who worked for government who had, in that sense, a real interest. This was the spoil system where people who wound up with government jobs both supported with campaign cash contributions to the party and also work on election day. We could say this one lasts until, national level 1880s, 90ish, local state level longer than that, to politics of consultants and advertisers and all of that. We can take that from about 19-teens and carry it on to the present. Those are the three phases I would see.

 

Dr. Steven Conn 

Yeah, you know, I think a lot of us, when we teach this to our students, point to that election of 1896, as that moment of transition between what Paula described as that second phase, that system of patronage to that system of consumerism, really, where we have advertising, we have consultants, we have centrally organized campaigns and so on and so forth. During that campaign in 1896, when William McKinley's operation is being run by Mark Hannah, Teddy Roosevelt, who is himself a young rising star in the Republican Party, writes a letter to a friend complaining that William McKinley is being sold like a patent medicine. And that's really, I think, captures that sense that politics is now part of the emerging consumer culture and consumer economy in the United States.

 

Marc Horger 

And my observation to that has always been, Teddy Roosevelt was criticizing patent medicine almost as much as he was politics. And one of the things I find interesting, maybe a point I would like to make, is that when I hear, as a consumer of political information and political commentary, when I hear criticism of the way campaigns are financed, it's not uniformly but it's largely from the left. And it's largely based ideologically in taking abstract offense to the idea that someone with x plus one dollar has x plus one political speech, but speaking as an American historian, I have a hard time thinking of a specific partisan outcome, a specific election that I'm deeply convinced created a different outcome because of n plus one spending of a certain type. So for example, the 1896 election was essentially rerun two more times, with essentially the same outcome where the Democrats put up William Jennings Bryan, against McKinley again in 1900. Over and over again. And if you look at the electoral maps, it's about the same. And when you look at changes in the way the election of 1896 was financed versus the previous generation of presidential elections, it's very easy to understand Roosevelt's critique. And when you look at the structure of party politics in the early twentieth century, it's harder to make a case that corporate evil won because of their new patterns of spending on elections.

 

Dr. Paula Baker 

That seems right. In 1896, it was a matter of more of it, more money, in part because it was easy to scare the crap out of donors. And so much so that Hannah wound up giving refunds. But the pattern of fundraising and centralizing campaigns had been true in the previous two elections, at least.

 

Dr. Steven Conn 

Well, I do think, though, that there was a reason that Karl Rove admired William McKinley and the campaign of 1896, more that was his political touchstone. And so I think there is some extent to which, some degree to which, that did signal a shift in the way we organized our campaigns from an earlier nineteenth century version, which is much more local, much more decentralized, much more homemade if that's the way you want to put it, to something which really does become more professionalized as the twentieth century rolls forward.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

And looking at the three-part story that Paula kind of introduced to us and Mark, you mentioned, people were starting to sort of see this as an n plus $1, you know, sort of issues with this campaign finance reform. And we were wondering if you could highlight the instances, if there are any, when campaign finance reform since this succeeded?

 

Marc Horger 

Well, depends on what you mean by succeeded. There was a brief period of time, beginning in the mid-70s, when in the national level, there was a kind of a Rube Goldberg elaborate version of publicly financed presidential campaigns. In 1976, I believe it was, the Supreme Court ruled political money was speech, and that you couldn't limit the amount of money an individual spent on their own political campaign or the amount of money an individual spent to get out a certain kind of political message. And for a while, there was a system of matching funds, where presidential candidates would essentially agree to limitations on those rights in exchange for the matching funds. And that more or less disappeared in 2008 when the Obama administration, or the Obama campaign, I should say, declined to opt into that. There was some public financing of politics, that was a period when it was. But again, I have a hard time isolating that as a period in which progressives had a long-term period of achievement because campaigns were publicly financed.

 

Dr. Steven Conn 

I think the question though, Mark, for me, is whether a quantitative difference. So if we were to think about a graph, and we were to look at what got spent on campaigns in 1900 and compared that to what's going to get spent in 2016, that graph's going to go up pretty steadily. So at some point, does a quantitative change become a qualitative change? And I don't know that the issue is simply whether or not you can track whether you can buy an election or not, because I think that's what the political scientists are really concerned about. Can we correlate spending money and electoral victories? And the answer is probably not. I think you're exactly right. But I think there might be some other issues at stake, which are both just as important, but also more long term than any given election cycle. So for example, we've already discussed the way in which the structure of politics and political organization changed as more money, more organization, more advertising and so forth moved in. I also can't help but wonder whether the increasing amount of money that flows through campaigns isn't indirectly somehow responsible for the, what do you want to call it, alienation, disengagement, disenchantment, cynicism that Americans have with politics altogether. I wonder if you could put those two things on a graph and notice that they're inverse to each other. The more money we spend, the more cynical we get.

 

Dr. Paula Baker 

I doubt that's true, mostly. When we think about a kind of, let's call the 1970s, peak cynicism. That's exactly our point when spending on campaigns is beginning, isn't this at least, presidential campaigns, this one little trough? Some indications of lessened cynicism had to do with the Obama campaigns, where we broke through the ceilings on political spending altogether. So I'm not sure if they relate necessarily.

 

Dr. Steven Conn 

Yeah no, that's fair enough. But let me ask the question a different way. What's the case to be made that it is good to have unlimited money sloshing through political campaigns?

 

Dr. Paula Baker 

Well, it depends on what you want. If what you want is competition, money will get you that. We saw that in the last election cycle. We were talking about this briefly earlier. On the Republican side, where otherwise Romney probably would have gotten the nomination without much in the way of, with sort of weak competition and an off, and it would have in that camp, and the whole Republican nomination campaign primary would have disappeared. But because of Sheldon Adelson, I guess, and the rest, the kind of various anybody-but-Romney's were given a kind of second life, and the whole thing went on longer than it would have otherwise. So you can essentially get competition. You could see this for that matter in 1972, with George McGovern, who did have a small donor campaign, but that small donor campaign in turn existed because of Stuart Mott and others who contributed to his campaign early on and kept the McGovern idea afloat, and he certainly wasn't the choice of the kind of mainstream party management otherwise.

 

Marc Horger 

Adelson is also a pretty good case study in the argument that, at least at the national level, there is decreasing marginal value in the next dollar spent, which is easy to laugh at, but to the extent that I'm conversant in how political scientists study this, political scientists are suspicious at the level of national presidential elections, that there's a lot of marginal utility in n plus one dollar, relative to where we are now. And maybe it might be worth asking, as also a roundabout way of answering your original question, if you think of Sheldon Adelson's dollars as spent on President Newt Gingrich, that's obviously dead weight loss. Right. Right. If you think of the one thing that Adelson has been able to do with his personal fortune, is that he keeps an issue important to him, but namely a certain kind of attitude about our relationship with Israel, right? Yep, he keeps that a core part of the Republican Party brand. The Koch brothers keep opposition to taxes, in and of themselves, a core proposition of the Republican brand. But there is a structural conversation to be had about whether, in the medium to long term, the structural possibility of a big spender over a lifetime might have an impact on what politicians and one of the two major parties have to agree to even to be in the arena in the first place.

 

Dr. Steven Conn 

Yeah, and I also, just to follow up on Paula's observation, which is really interesting. At the national level, at the presidential level, money brings you competition but do you think, Paula, that at the lesser levels, let's say even at the US Senate, but certainly at House level, money keeps people out? That knowing that if you're going to run, even for a rinky dink congressional district somewhere in Nebraska.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Or a court seat.

 

Marc Horger 

You're going to have to come up with three million dollars. Is that, in effect, shutting people out of the process and making it less competitive?

 

Dr. Paula Baker 

Yes and no. Where incumbents, in particular, will show that they have an enormous amount of money that makes it implausible that someone else would really have a chance to enter in. But two things, if that incumbent is, for other reasons, unpopular, either because of an issue/position taken or something like that, the chances of attracting outside money and raising the amount of money is possible. And non-incumbents tend to have to outraise incumbents by quite a bit. And so arguably, the ability to raise funds matters for competition at the local level too. Otherwise, I grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania where, when I was a kid, and more or less forever, there was a congressman named Dan Flood, who is chair of Ways and Means.

 

Marc Horger 

I remember Dan Flood.

 

Dr. Paula Baker 

Dan Flood was around forever.

 

Dr. Steven Conn 

Older than the flood gate.

 

Marc Horger 

That's a great name for a Ways and Means chairman.

 

Dr. Paula Baker 

Yeah, I mean popes came and went but Dan Flood stayed. And no, that was an older system of incumbency where nobody in their right mind would be able to challenge Flood.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Yeah.

 

Marc Horger 

Something that may begin happening and there's some rudimentary evidence that this is starting to happen, the converse of there being a limited marginal utility to the next dollar spent on president, is that if you got a big pile of money and you want to have an impact, you might start spending it elsewhere. And there are some early signs that the big pools of election, private election finance capital, for lack of a better phrase, are beginning to be deployed, are beginning to flow from national to local, in some cases very local.

 

Dr. Paula Baker 

There's a democratic project now aimed at winning back state houses.

 

Marc Horger 

And I'm even thinking about something more narrow than that. Last spring, there was a ballot levy here in Columbus, Ohio, about the zoo. And the zoo wanted to, what did they want to build downtown? They wanted to build something downtown, so they put a levy on and Americans for Prosperity spent money opposing the Columbus Zoo levy. And Americans for Prosperity, it's possible that they will eventually conclude that their marginal dollar is best spent not on presidents but there's already some evidence that that money is beginning to flow into very, very local things.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Has the Citizens United decision fundamentally altered things and how has it done that from the past?

 

Dr. Steven Conn 

What Citizens United did was to build on some other cases that have come up through the court over the years, which enshrines the idea that spending money is a form of First Amendment expression and therefore protected by the First Amendment and therefore, presumably, cannot be restricted in the way that we don't restrict speech. I think there's a case that maybe hasn't even yet quite been argued this term, but it's coming up about whether lying is a form of protected political speech. It is a case out of Ohio, where Ohio has a law which essentially prohibits you from lying during a political campaign. The candidate who broke this law has sued that this is a form of political speech. I think this is going to wind up in the Supreme Court. So you can lie a lot and spend a lot of money if the case goes this way. So I think there are two things that seems to me that are at work with Citizens United. One is this question of whether money is speech. And I think that really does just rub people the wrong way. And that's a constitutional question over which honest people can disagree. And indeed, it was pretty bitterly fought in the court's decision in 2010. The other legal principle that's involved here, which also troubles me a little bit, is the idea that the court should not reckon with the consequences of a decision. And this is, again, something that legal people disagree over. But I think the court really was not interested in what the implications of unlimited spending might be to the political system. I think they decided they were only going to rule, the majority at any rate, only going to rule on this particular constitutional question in which they were building on things that already existed in the law. But again, my question would be, does a quantitative change now translate into a qualitative change? And I would worry that it does.

 

Dr. Paula Baker 

I'm not so sure. I mean, given the trend lines, I'm not sure if Citizens United has made that difference. In as much as we get to our dysfunctional Federal Election Commission and how it was the case, that these 501(c)(3) organizations, these named after their bit in the text code, that are at some level with educational organizations or something like that. But this is the example of the Karl Rove organization, American Crossroads. It existed before Citizens United and will carry on afterwards, and that was the model and there were plenty of other organizations like that, that entered in, that provided a way for folks who wanted to contribute to campaigns, without necessary disclosures, could do so. I mean, disclosure becomes the issue here. And a couple of things that have always struck me, have increasingly struck me about disclosure and the rest of what were really the early twentieth century Progressive Era rules. One, primary elections. Secondly, this principle of disclosure, which came in through something called the Corrupt Practices Act, have increasingly come to collide with a campaign finance system that is ever larger, much more likely to be easily searchable, given internet tools and the like, you don't have to go to the county courthouse and go through piles of stuff. Where, on one side, you kind of lose another Progressive Era innovation, which is a secret ballot, where "Oh, hey, yeah, who did, you know, who gave where." And now we can reach back and tag somebody and I'm not sure if we necessarily really want to go there. That's one thing that troubles me about disclosure. And secondly, the whole primary election process gets us, in the United States, a system that is ever so much more expensive than anyone else's, because our campaign season goes on and on and on, and we run two elections.

 

Marc Horger 

That may just be a subset of the larger fact that secret, as a modifier, may be atrophying for reasons that don't have much to do with politics. On the one hand, we have the secret ballot. On the other hand, I suspect that the two major parties already know how all of us in this room voted in the last election -

 

Patrick Potyondy 

And will vote for all elections to come, you know.

 

Marc Horger 

And when we finally went to vote, the phone stopped ringing and the emails stopped coming and -

 

Dr. Paula Baker 

I find it creepy.

 

Marc Horger 

I'm not disagreeing but I find it part of a larger tectonic movement, perhaps not isolated to politics and having more to do with the multiple electronic devices containing GPS and consumer preferences that we all carry around with us as well.

 

Dr. Steven Conn 

You know, there's a different way to put this question that I think is worth just keeping in mind. What the Court has said, in Citizens United and elsewhere, that political speech is free speech, that spending money is free speech, and therefore, they can't be regulated. But the flip side of the question here, is whether the American people, through the people we elect to represent us, have a right, a legislative power, to put restrictions on how we run our elections. And we restrict our elections in a variety of other ways. We got a whole spate of voter ID laws that have been making their way through and so it does seem to me that there's a conundrum here that, on the one hand, some number of people would like some kind of campaign finance reform, and the court is closing off avenues through which to do that. And that seems to me to be a thwarting of a democratic impulse.

 

Dr. Paula Baker 

I think, traditionally, for campaign finance reform, the coalition has been Democrats, and shall we call them, independent Republicans. They've been the magic coalition at both the state and federal level. At the moment, I don't see where the energy -

 

Dr. Steven Conn 

Oh, yes. I totally agree.

 

Dr. Paula Baker 

- on either side comes from.

 

Dr. Steven Conn 

I mean, the last big piece of campaign finance legislation, of course, was McCain-Feingold. And in 2008, John McCain kept claiming it was Frank McCain who passed that piece of it. He refused to acknowledge that he had anything to do with campaign finance reform. So even those people who pass the legislation don't want to touch it anymore. So I agree, there's no enthusiasm for it at that level.

 

Dr. Paula Baker 

And Democrats have been doing well enough in fundraising as we've...I don't see where the energy comes from.

 

Dr. Steven Conn 

No, I - exactly.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

And with all of this in mind and all this great background we have here, are there any last words on how will this 2016 presidential campaign look different potentially from others in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries?

 

Dr. Paula Baker 

I'm not seeing it. Although what difference here is that? Certainly on the Republican side at this point, because it's hard to say how the Democratic side through the primaries is going to shake out, if it is, you know, Hillary Clinton alone or not, but everyone's setting up their super PACs and all of that at a, first of all goes to the dysfunction of the Federal Election Commission. And secondly, it will keep a lot of these candidates afloat at a point when a chunk of the party leadership, the party adults would prefer to see them go away.

 

Dr. Steven Conn 

I think that one of the things we're also beginning to see, if we move away from the White House and go to Capitol Hill, for just a moment, Congress is essentially doing less and less as more and more time has to be spent fundraising. So terms for House members now really run to one year, because then you spend the next year gearing up your next reelection campaign. And one third of the senators at any given moment are playing what a friend of mine, who's in the Senate in Delaware, refers to as the, "dialing for dollars game," because that's all it is. And he's in Delaware, he doesn't have cash. So you can drive for dollars. But that's what they have to do now, is raise money all the time, constantly, which means that they aren't doing the things that they're supposed to be doing, allegedly.

 

Marc Horger 

Right now, we appear to be in a period, in sort of in the middle of a period, of long-term structural stability and balance between the two party coalitions, which was also very strongly characteristic of the late nineteenth century. And that's a period, that's a sort of a long-term structural situation where you wind up having impassioned debates about access to the ballot. Who is registered? How many Sundays can you vote? Because most of the professionals in the system right now lived through 2000. And live in a period of party alignment, where one more voter in the right precinct on the right day on the right election maybe has an impact.

 

Dr. Paula Baker 

Right. Right.

 

Marc Horger 

And so we have these talks about deep structure. We have these talks about campaign finance and voter access, and these are the kinds of things.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

All right, I want to extend a thank you to our three guests: Steven Conn, Marc Horger, and Paula Baker for joining us today on History Talk.

 

Dr. Steven Conn 

Thanks so much, it was fun.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

This edition of the Origins podcast, History Talk, was brought to you by the Public History Initiative and the Goldberg Center in the history department at The Ohio State University. Our main editors are Steven Conn and Nicholas Breyfogle. Our executive producer is David Staley. Our audio and technical advisor is Paul Kotheimer. Our audio producers and hosts are Patrick Potyondy and Leticia Wiggins. Song and band information can be found on our website. You can find our podcasts and more at our website, origins.osu.edu, on iTunes and on Soundcloud and as always, you can find us on Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr. Thank you for listening.

 

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