Speaking of America

US election: Big money speaks softly in this nomination race

Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have been running campaigns for the presidential nomination without large corporate donors. This is rare in American politics.

WASHINGTON • In American politics, money talks, and big money talks louder - or at least that was supposed to be the rule heading into the 2016 presidential campaign.

When the Supreme Court loosened restrictions on campaign donations from corporations in a controversial 2010 decision known as Citizens United, many feared an influx of big corporate money into the political process. After all, the ruling allowed corporations to donate an unlimited amount to political activity on the basis that such donations constituted an act of free speech.

And indeed, the 2012 general election proved to be the most expensive on record, with the entire affair (including the elections for governors and members of Congress) gobbling up a massive US$6.3 billion - a disproportionate amount coming from a small group of wealthy donors and corporations.

This year, it was thus clear that the role of money from the wealthy was only going to get worse - that is, until it didn't.

As America inches past the halfway point of the primary process, a look at the surprising successes of the campaigns of billionaire Donald Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders raises inevitable questions about what happened to all those predictions about the power of big money.

CHEAP TRUMP, RICH SANDERS?

On the Republican side, front runner Donald Trump has got to where he is by taking almost no money from corporate donors. And it isn't because the billionaire is bankrolling his campaign personally either - small dollar donations provide millions to his campaign. Overall, his campaign is among the cheapest in the field.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

On the Democratic Party side, Senator Sanders may not have Mr Trump's wealth and isn't running as frugal a campaign, but he has been able to raise more than what he needs without relying on outside groups known as super political action committees, or super PACs.

Mr Trump's campaign is only less frugal than that of Ohio governor John Kasich's - notwithstanding Mr Kasich's difficulties in raising large sums of money so far.

Not even including the more than US$20 million (S$27 million) spent by outside groups supporting him, Senator Ted Cruz has already spent nearly double Mr Trump's amount.

That Mr Trump's spending has been so low is in part due to the unusual political machinery he has built for himself. He isn't just buying very few television ads, he also isn't spending on any of the things that campaigns normally need.

Campaigns have to pay for rent and salaries of hundreds of people all over the country to boost their "ground game". A campaign is also basically a start-up that lasts a year - it needs managers, accountants, PR folk, social media experts, pollsters, speech-writers and all manner of advisers. That's what's required to have a good ground game that can reach into the most rural parts of the United States.

Mr Trump has decided to forgo all that. According to a recent New York magazine article, he has just 94 people on his payroll. Democratic front runner Hillary Clinton has 765.

Indeed, Mrs Clinton has spent US$129.3 million and Mr Sanders has spent US$122.6 million - the narrower Democrat field means money is more concentrated on the few candidates -while Mr Trump has spent just US$33.4 million.

To put that in perspective, Mr Trump has spent about half a million less on his campaign to date than what Mr Jeb Bush spent in his short-lived bid for the White House. And again, that isn't even taking into account the more than US$80 million spent by super PACs.

For Mr Sanders, his campaign has been far more straightforward in spending, but has been completely unusual in not taking a cent from corporations.

Both Mr Trump and Mr Sanders proudly proclaim to anyone who will listen that they do not need money from super PACs. Mr Trump even asked some unsanctioned super PACs to shutter, even though he has not ruled out taking outside money in the general election if he is the nominee.

With the leading Republican nominee and a strong challenger for the Democrat nomination both running financially tight campaigns, there is now talk that Big Money's role might be overstated. Perhaps candidates don't need corporations to provide the funds for a successful campaign, and they do not need to spend a lot of money to win.

THE END OF BIG MONEY POLITICS?

That may sound like a good line, but it is too early to write the obituaries of corporate political donations. For one thing, big corporate donors have yet to flex their muscle.

While Mr Bush managed to raise a relatively large sum of money from establishment donors, the Koch brothers - the colossus of Republican funding - have so far sat on the sidelines.

Political organisations affiliated with the billionaire industrialists had a US$400 million war chest in 2012 and have said they intend to spend some US$900 million advancing the conservative cause in this cycle. Some of that largesse was supposed to go towards backing a candidate in the primary, presumably whichever candidate the Republican establishment rallied around.

However, a spokesman for the billionaires' network of wealthy donors said earlier this month that they would stay away and not try to block Mr Trump, despite their well-known disdain for him.

It's unlikely they will stay inactive throughout the general election campaign though. It remains unclear whether they will completely stay away from backing the Republican Party nominee if it is Mr Trump, but they are almost certain to pour money into down-ballot races to keep Republicans with the balance of power in Congress.

A recent Harvard University report on the Koch brothers also concluded that their network prefers to focus their spending on smaller local races anyway,where their money can have a bigger impact. In a presidential election, the large number of donors can distract voters.

On the side of Democratic Party, super PACs have also been keeping their powder dry. A lot of this comes down to the dynamic of the Democratic Party race right now.

Mrs Clinton doesn't need to attack Mr Sanders because of her position as the presumptive nominee and the need to unite the party after the primaries. To date, she has not produced a single attack ad against Mr Sanders.

There is also, of course, the irony of using big money to counter someone whose platform is focused so intensely on the message that big money is destroying democracy.

In a way, it is possible that Mr Sanders and Mr Trump have been able to perform their corporate money-defying stunt due to the singular nature of this election cycle.

There may well never be another candidate famous enough to forgo spending on advertising and savvy enough to run the campaign the way Mr Trump has.

Similarly, ground enthusiasm for a change in campaign financing may never peak the same way again. If ordinary Americans giving small sums to Mr Sanders do not end up with any significant change, then who is to say they will open their wallets to the next candidate making this promise.

Once super PAC money really starts flowing, the true test of the influence of big money can be known.

None of this is to suggest that Mr Trump and Mr Sanders haven't at least made a dent in the way campaigns are financed.

In this cycle at least, the two have been so adept at tapping on and fanning dissatisfaction with money in politics that it has at least made it difficult for candidates to openly embrace corporate donors.

The other candidates may not necessarily turn down every large cheque they get, but they might at least think twice, knowing that they are going to suffer some political cost for taking the money.

It may well be that these impulses are forgotten by the time the next election rolls around, but for one year at least, corporate donors trying to influence the race are being given a run for their money.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 08, 2016, with the headline 'Big Money speaks softly in this nomination race'. Print Edition | Subscribe