Teaching the 2016 Election: Money in Politics, Part I

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

In the modern era, running for public office is at least partly dependent on one’s ability to raise campaign contributions through an extensive donor base or independent wealth. There’s an adage that while campaign finances may not help win elections, the lack of them likely yields a loss. Given the assumption in political science that elected officials are primarily motivated in keeping their jobs, “dialing for dollars” is a daily duty in what has arguably become a permanent campaign.

The desirability of this practice is debatable, as is the extent to which money in politics tarnishes our institutions and the public policy outcomes they produce.

Are campaign donations:
  1. A means to support candidates that align with our ideological goals
  2. A means to gain access to elected officials upon gaining or sustaining office
  3. An implicit means of purchasing preferred policy outcomes
  4. All of the above
These questions are entangled in an ongoing debate over the meaning of the First Amendment vis a vis campaign contributions. Political speech garners of the utmost protection among First Amendment freedoms, but do campaign donations qualify as such? A previous majority on the U.S. Supreme Court answered in the affirmative, but the future is very much in question after Justice Antonin Scalia’s death and the likelihood that the next president will have multiple vacancies to fill.

The dissenting view fears that democracy is for sale to the highest bidder. They therefore favor placing campaign donations on par with commercial advertising, meaning that time, place, and manner restrictions apply. This seemingly permits government regulation of campaign donations and perhaps expenditures.

Beyond the Supreme Court vacancy, the issue of campaign finance has played a central role in the 2016 Election.
  • Bernie Sanders repeatedly railed against Super PAC’s and raised unprecedented amounts of money via small donations averaging $27
  • Donald Trump gave at least an illusion that his primary campaign was self-financed and he was therefore above reproach
  • Hillary Clinton’s coziness with big banks and her prolific fundraising machine made her vulnerable to the anti-establishment fervor grapping our politics, but ultimately fueled her defeat of Sanders in the Democratic primary
Some suggest that money in politics is like water on land: it will flow freely regardless of obstacles placed in its path. If this is true, perhaps sunlight is our best disinfectant, and we’ll return on Wednesday with tools to illuminate campaign finances in the context of the 2016 Election and beyond.

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