Follow the Money

Two recent pieces in The Atlantic raise important questions on campaign finance — not on where the money is coming from this time, but rather where it’s going. As each failing candidate bows out of the race, it’s not just their policy positions that fade from public consciousness. Aside from strategy postmortems, how a failed campaign (and their related Super PACs) spent its money is rarely examined.

In the first article, David Graham captures a quote from soon-to-be-former candidate Ben Carson on the financial management of his campaign.

“We had people who didn’t really seem to understand finances,” a laughing Carson told CNN’s Poppy Harlow on “CNN Newsroom,” adding, “or maybe they did — maybe they were doing it on purpose.”

Graham goes on to analyze not just the quizzical inefficiency of Carson’s reliance on expensive telemarketing and direct mail tactics, but how he might have chosen those avenues. Graham wonders the advice of Carson’s advisors is free of financial conflicts of interest. Indeed, for as regulated as campaign finances are, the way they contract for services is not subject to the same scrutiny we expect from other non-profit organizations or even the government.

In the second article, David Frum ponders if it’s not special interest groups who are corrupting American elections but rather the very organizations they are donating to (such as Super PACs). Like Graham, Frum looks at how much money former candidate Jeb Bush’s Right to Rise Super PAC paid out to contractors and vendors after CNN reported its leader, Mike McCarthy, billed the group for $14 million.

I’ve often wondered why people donate to campaigns. I get why businesses and special interest groups do it but for me, it’s less clear for individuals.

From my time in DC, I know that donations of a certain level let you play ambassador at some podunk outpost. A slightly smaller donation earns your kid a political appointee job at some Federal agency (and with it, the loathing of all the civil servants who worked decades to get to the next-lower rung on the ladder). However, there’s a limited number of these spots available for purchase.

So what does the average donor get?

It turns out that, increasingly, this question is being overshadowed by a more pressing one: Where does the average donation go?

The buying of influence in American politics is surely distasteful, arguably un-American, but it’s not illegal and surely not new. However, the corruption and embezzlement of funds from these non-profit organizations is illegal (though likely also not new).

Addressing this potential for abject corruption presents the opportunity for increased campaign finance reform. If we accept that there are corrupt inefficiencies in the way campaigns are priced — and The Atlantic did a good job this week making that all-but-undeniable — removing them would make campaigns cheaper. It could slow, and possibly reverse, the exponential growth of money in campaigns and maybe, just maybe, reduce the influence as well.

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