A Supreme Court ruling opened the floodgates for unprecedented campaign financing
Last September, Martin Shkreli (the pharmaceutical CEO who jacked the price of an AIDS drug by 5400%) donated $2,700 to the Bernie Sanders campaign hoping to schedule a meeting between the candidate and himself so they could talk about big pharma and Bernie’s contention toward it. The Sanders camp responded by taking the donation and contributing it to the Whitman-Walker health clinic for AIDs research. It was a sobering — and isolated — moment during an election season impregnated by financial contributions from anyone and every company. Nowhere else has this been more evident than in the New Hampshire primaries.
On February 9th, the citizens of New Hampshire will head to the polls to vote for the candidate they believe best embodies the values and vision of the country. Unfortunately, that vision is a bit murky as candidates and their super PACs have spent more than $100 million on political ads touting their resume and trashing their opponent’s. To compare, in 2012, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney spent $2 million combined on political ads up to this point. There were only two candidates in that contest but the sheer difference in money spent in New Hampshire to kick off the primary season elucidates how a supreme court ruling opened the floodgates for all donors, not just corporations, to now play a role in the outcome of elections.
But who are we kidding, campaign financing is as old as the country itself. Even congress understands that its mercurial political life survives on how much it raises during congressional recesses and therefore blocked campaign financing reform. It wasn’t until a supreme court ruling in 2010 did things truly turn south for the campaign financing landscape. In Citizens United vs. FEC, the Supreme Court held that the first amendment prohibited the government from restricting independent political expenditures by non-profits, for-profit corporations and individuals. The campaign floodgates were freshly open and anyone with a checkbook and political agenda could ride the wave of freedom. The only problem? The wrong donors came running.
While the Supreme Court ruling allowed corporate donations under the first amendment, it also allowed individual billionaires to enter the fray, making it rain on the candidates who already reeked of blackberry lotion and cheap cigarettes. In the Republican field, the number of remaining candidates with financial might is a testament to the number of large donors working behind the scenes, legally fueling the super PACs that purchase the attack ads to keep their candidate in the running. Of the $100 million spent in New Hampshire, conservative super PACs were responsible for $64 million of the spending — a significant percentage in a competitive race. If you want to win as a candidate, why would you spit into the wind? Sadly, super PACs are equal party opportunists. In 2014, overall Democratic super PACs — made up of liberal billionaires — outstripped Republican super PACs by $65 million. New Hampshire’s the second primary for all of the candidates and already we’re seeing an unnerving trend of increased participation by outside parties pushing for a political agenda whether that is social, economical or professional.
Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are both predicted to win the New Hampshire primary by double-digit victories. They are both anti-establishment candidates with an ardent voter following and restrictions on who can donate to their campaigns. Whether their lead is a result of the political candor born from the freedom to not be restrained by large donors or an increase in advertising attacks by both candidates before the primary, we can all agree that Campaign financing has turned elections into a cash-grab, marketing strategy that negates the wants and needs of the people and instead focuses on the short term of raising money to convince the people not as to why the candidate is a good option, but as to why the other candidate is a bad option. It’s a race to the bottom and must be dialed in if we ever hope to achieve a transparent political system that eliminates the common political paradigm of “voting for the lesser evil.”