Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Endless Campaign

According to Daniel Henninger of the Wall Street Journal, we have McCain-Feingold to thank for the current monstrously long presidential campaign cycle (see here). No good deed goes unpunished and every government action carries with it unintended consequences.

Campaign finance reformers wanted to get “big money” out of national politics (and create a stronger incumbency protection system at the same time — but that’s another story). So they implemented a cap on personal campaign contributions that currently stands at $2,300. This means that candidates have to get money from a very broad base of small time contributors instead of from a few well heeled contributors. (Unless you have enough personal wealth to fund much of your own campaign.)

But it takes a long time, a lot of work, and a lot of expense to pull together enough small chunks of contributions to run an effective campaign. The cost of fundraising under this paradigm has gone through the roof. The unintended side effect of campaign finance reform, claims Henninger, is that candidates must start very early and campaign in constant sales pitch mode.

So you end up with bundlers that gather together loads of $2,300 contributions and turn them over to campaigns. Only, some of those contributions end up coming from dubious sources, as was the case with bundler Norman Hsu. And because some change in affairs could “turn a commitment [made] way back when into an embarrassment 14 months later,” you end up with candidates that campaign “more or less about nothing.” They engage in major arguments about issues that are relatively unimportant and avoid solid commitments to anything substantive.

The media and the pollsters love this lengthened campaign season. But already, with almost 11 months to go, pollsters are finding decreasing levels of voter interest in the candidates. It’s campaign fatigue. Voters feel about the campaign the way shoppers feel about the store downtown that has been holding a going out of business sale for the last two years. “The result,” Henninger observes, could be that “Mike Huckabee may win Iowa in large part because he gives people a good laugh.”

The obvious solution is to realize that our well intentioned campaign finance reform law is a failure, and scrap it. Let any American contribute any amount they want to any campaign they want, but require that all contributions be immediately posted publicly. Allow full transparency so that everyone can see who is supporting whom. This is more like the American way.

Another alternative would be to go with the heavy hand of the all-wise government approach. Put limits on campaign spending and legally limit campaign activities to a certain period of time prior to the election. Of course, this approach assumes that voters can’t be trusted to figure out what candidates are up to. It would only invite more Hsu-like corruption and lawyers would get rich wrangling over the definition of campaign activity.

The answer does not lie in more campaign restrictions. Rather, more openness is needed. Dumping the $2,300 contribution cap in favor of contribution transparency would shorten campaign cycles. Would this system be problem free? Nope. No system would be. But it would be better than what we have today, and it would be better than more heavy handed government control.


Anonymous said...

I don't mean for this to be a Ron Paul plug, but he's the best(only) example of what I want to say.

Even with the $2300 cap a campaign can raise functionally unlimited funds by having a broad base of dedicated supporters. On November 5th almost 40,000 supporters raised over $4M for the campaign (just over $100 each) and on December 16th they did it again with 55,000 supporters raising $6M (just over $100 each again).

A bit of quick math says that 50,000 supporters raising $100 per month each would lead to $60M / year (not counting anything given by anyone outside of that core base) which is enough money to compete with any fund raising we've see so far by any candidate. Not only that, but $100/month means that the same person can keep giving for 46 of the 48 months between elections without exceeding the limits ($2300 for the primary and $2300 for the general election).

This does not prove that the campaign finance law is working, it means that it's irrelevant. What we need is a change in our political culture to where politicians say things that inspire people and then stick to them rather than being perpetually under-inspiring for fear of saying something controversial. And total transparency would be nothing if not helpful in changing our political culture.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Ron Paul's fundraising has been fantastic. And I believe that it is due, as I discussed in this post, to the fact that he inspires passion in people. In fact, he inspires passion in a lot of people. But not enough people to get him elected to any national office.

Your math breaks down because it does not function on an endless incline, but follows a curve. That is, a logical limit will eventually be reached where Paul generates decreasing numbers of supporters and is limited to the donations his passionate supporters can muster.

Even by this model, the cost required to generate each donated dollar is substantially higher than under a plan where people are free to donate as much as they desire to whichever candidate(s) they desire, as long as donations are made immediately public. Thus, Paul's model can only work well in a very long campaign. If you want a shorter campaign, you need a more open model.

Charles D said...

There are a number of things that would work, but taking all controls off campaign spending would never work, even with transparency. It would only be transparent to those who slogged through the mountains of data on the Internet, because the corporate media would certainly tell us nothing.

The parties could simply scrap the presidential primaries altogether. Let those registered with the party elect delegates to the convention who were committed to policy positions rather than candidates, then hold the convention in the summer before the election and pick your candidate. There's no Constitutional mandate to hold primaries.

If we insist on retaining this idiotic year-long primary process, then the government can merely require broadcast radio and TV stations to give each candidate free air time as part of the public service obligation. (God knows they aren't living up to it now.) Provide government funding for campaigns and prohibit all private funds -- that would be the fairest system, but I think it is unnecessary.

Just scrap the primaries!

Scott Hinrichs said...

I completely disagree with government funding of campaigns. That is just another way of stifling free speech and providing incumbents an even bigger edge than they currently enjoy. It's a good way to take our current problems and make them worse.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Karl Rove contends in this WSJ op-ed that what we actually need is a longer primary season and a shorter general election season. He offers some general suggestions for how this might be achieved.

Rove notes that "next fall we'll elect a president who's spent two years rocketing around the country in an aluminum tube and sleeping in strange hotel rooms on a brutal, exhausting campaign trail." In 2008's long pre-primary campaign and shortest ever primary, "Both parties could end up with a candidate chosen in haste and repented of at great cost."

This pattern, contends Rove, puts "pressure on candidates to act in ways that have nothing to do with how well they will govern," when the "purpose of a campaign ought to be the opposite."

Rove also discusses the obvious campaign fatigue Americans will suffer as the result of a general election season that effectively runs from 2/5/08 to 11/6/08. But he thinks that perhaps this debacle "will be compelling evidence for reform.".

Charles D said...

Government funding of all candidates on an equal basis would remove the advantage of incumbency, not increase it. It would permit all candidates to have an equal opportunity to get their message across to voters.

The current system is heavily weighted toward incumbents who can get bribes (aka contributions) from moneyed interests easily, and candidates who support or are in thrall to moneyed interests.