When only the rich can run for office, it has real consequences for public policy

As political races at the local, state, and federal level become increasingly expensive to run, it effectively requires that candidates be either rich enough to fund their own campaigns or be well connected enough to fundraise the capital needed to mount a serious bid. Take for instance, this snippet from a recent Politico article about the 2018 (yes, 2018) Illinois governor’s race:

Illinois Governor Bruce “Rauner tapped his personal fortune and that of other wealthy individuals to pour eye-popping amounts of money into local races, forcing Democrats to engage in pricey battles for even the most obscure of state legislative races.”

Umm…anyone else hear the alarm bells ringing? As the cost of winning a seat goes up through market competition, lower-income and less well-connected people are essentially priced out of becoming viable candidates for political office. I’d like to look at some data to see just how often the better-funded candidate wins (at the three levels, controlling for incumbency), but my guess is that financial underdog wins do happen but not as often and probably, increasingly less.

It’s not that all well-funded candidates are evil fat cats smoking cigars and laughing at the little guys; we have to look at the candidate’s incentives in a race and why races are becoming more expensive.

The obvious incentive is to win because winning is necessary to implement your platform. It’s true that outsiders such as industries, advocates, donors, and VIP constituents all have a hand in shaping a candidate’s platform, but I assume most candidates also have perfectly genuine beliefs about how the government should operate (merits of these belief aside for this post). They’d like to see the world run the way they think it should, so they have to be in a position to enact their vision and values. Makes sense, and honestly, it’s rational thinking. So, the primary objective is to win.

Winning requires getting your name out there to potential voters, attaching a good message to it, and defending your name and reputation. How do you do all this? By buying ads on TV, sending out emails, hiring staff to knock on doors and organize volunteers, renting a place for headquarters, paying for digital consultants to get your name out on social media, and so much more. All of these activities cost money. And as technology invents new channels of information, it requires more and more resources to undertake all the necessary activities to win a campaign. That’s why candidates need lots of money, and why if you have more of it, you're a more serious candidate, meaning increasingly optimistic outlook on your likelihood of winning.

But when it gets to the point that certain socioeconomic and racial groups are priced out of running for office because they don’t have the same wealth or networks to raise enough money, it has real consequences for public policy. This means that their voices, experiences, and policy priorities have a much harder time getting enacted or at least seriously considered in legislative bodies. Their values and beliefs about how the world should work are absent in committee hearings, official debate, stakeholder meetings, and votes. Also, this means that kingmakers such as parties and mega donors will not spend time mentoring and polishing these candidates because their lack of cash makes them a poor investment of the kingmakers’ time and money. Policymakers will increasingly hail from privileged backgrounds that are disconnected from so many Americans’ experiences. Yet, a strong democracy demands proportional representation from all factions of the union. How can we say this is the case when it’s only the wealthier and better connected faction that can afford to be serious political candidates?

Please note, however, that I’m not saying that all wealthy, well-connected politicians are “bad” or “corrupt” or conversely that all lower-income, less well-connected candidates are “good” or “moral”. I’m not sure to what extent candidates’ quality and efficacy is related to their income status/network depth. But, we should at least give anyone who is serious about considering a political run an equal chance to do so. Now, if their campaign falls apart because of the candidate, well that’s on them!

If we don’t want current income status or network depth to be such great determinants of who we have as candidates, we have to find a way to slow the increasing cost of a race. How do we do that? Good question. Still working on that.

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