Campaign Financing in America

by Colin Robertson, Senior Strategic Advisor for McKenna, Long and Aldridge LLP  

“A republic if you can keep it” Benjamin Franklin famously told Mrs. Proust at the end of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 in Philadelphia.

The Republic has endured but some repair is necessary around money politics and within the Republican party to sustain public faith in the system.

Estimated to cost over six billion dollars, the 2012 campaign will go down as the most expensive US election to date. By contrast, the 2011 Canadian election cost $330 million.

With elections every two years, the average member of Congress must raise at least $5,000 a week in order to have a sufficient war-chest for their re-election. Campaign fundraising is a daily activity.

A 2010 Supreme Court decision, Citizens United, loosened campaign financing rules to give corporations commensurate status with individual citizens. Americans are nothing if not creative and the result, if you live in a swing state, is a constant stream of political advertising, most of it negative.

It is reckoned that two-thirds of this year’s funding came from business interests. Studies as to whether it translates into winning candidates or support for their interests are inconclusive. The US Conference Board titled their analysis Dangerous Terrain. What is clear is that members of Congress need to raise an average of $5000 a day from the day of their election to have a sufficient war chest for their next election – two years later.To win her Minnesota race this November, Michele Bachmann spent $22,395,734. For that she got 51 percent of the vote. Her Democratic opponent spent $2,231,086. The big money is spent in the Senate – this year’s top dollar race was in Massachusetts where Democrat Elizabeth Warren spent $41,212,005 to beat Republican incumbent Scott Brown who spent $34,857,978. Brown, who won the special election to succeed Teddy Kennedy in January, 2010, may well get another chance assuming Massachusetts Senator John Kerry is confirmed as Secretary of State.Fundraising is a daily activity, unless you already have money. Increasingly, many do – the Center for Responsive Politics estimates 47 percent of Congress are already millionaires.

But money doesn’t always translate into victory. In Connecticut the unsuccessful Republican senatorial candidate, Linda McMahon, the professional wrestling magnate, spent $50.6 million,  personally financing 96 percent of that total. It was almost as much as her unsuccessful 2010 campaign when her personal loans totaled $49.5 million, or 98.6 percent of her campaign budget.

In his Farewell Address, George Washington warned about factionalism although Thomas Jefferson recognized that a well-functioning Republic required a credible opposition.

While the Founding Fathers created a system of checks and balances, in recent years too often the national government has been in a state of gridlock. The Republican Party has failed to provide a credible opposition because it is rent by the kind of factionalism warned about by Washington. It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With The New Politics of Extremism write Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute and Thomas Mann of Brookings.

Ornstein and Mann argue that the GOP on Capitol Hill behave like a parliamentary opposition, “ideologically polarized, internally unified, vehemently oppositional” but this doesn’t work in a “separation-of-powers system that makes it extremely difficult for majorities to work their will.”

The two congressional scholars argue that the congressional caucus “has become more loyal to party than to country,” the authors write, so “the political system has become grievously hobbled at a time when the country faces unusually serious problems and grave threats. . . . The country is squandering its economic future and putting itself at risk because of an inability to govern effectively.”

The sensible in the party recognize that they need to change, especially coming to terms with the emerging American demography, especially Latinos and Asians. They voted 3-2 for President Obama. There are now 50 million Americans claiming Latino roots. They are the nation’s fastest growing ethnic group. As South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham observed, “We’re in a death spiral with Hispanic voters because of rhetoric around immigration.” Mr. Romney took 27 percent of the Latino vote; President Obama captured 71 percent.

Reagan and Romney both won the white vote by the same margin – 20 percent – and therein lies the changing American demographic landscape. It is a majority in retreat, having declined from 89 percent of the electorate in 1980 to today’s 72 percent with 13 percent black, 10 percent Latino and 5 percent “other.”

Primary wins by Tea Party favourites did not translate with the average voter. They illustrated, once again, what political scientist Robert Hofstadter described as the ‘paranoid style’ in American politics.

From the ‘Know-Nothings’ of the 1840s who railed against Papacy and the Irish to Todd Akin and his peculiar views on conception, the ‘paranoid style’ surfaces to roil the waters of American politics. This is especially the case during periods of turbulent social and economic change.

Writing during the 1964 Goldwater-Johnson campaign, Hofstadter observed, “American politics has often been an arena for angry minds” demonstrating “how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. But, behind this, I believe, there is a style of mind that is far from new, and that is not necessarily right wing. I call it the paranoid style, simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.”

The Republican adoption of the Tea Party movement ideology around immigration, taxation and social issues like abortion and gay marriage are not ‘game-changers’ for victory. Canada’s Conservatives could teach the GOP some lessons in the art of compromise for the public good.

With unemployment over the course of the last four years averaging over 8 percent, the highest since the Great Depression, and with 60 percent of Americans thinking the country was heading in the wrong direction, conventional wisdom proclaimed it was for the GOP to lose. They mostly did.

The Republicans failed to win the Senate, despite the Democrats having to defend twice as many seats. The Republicans retain control of the House of Representatives but is it a functioning opposition?  The failed effort of their leadership to offer a credible alternative on the fiscal cliff illustrates both division within the Party and a ‘know-nothing’ attitude in their opposition to taxation.

The last time the Republican caucus voted for higher income taxes was 1990. The party has transmogrified from the party of balanced budgets to ‘no-new-taxes’ ever. As former Supreme Court Justice and Civil War veteran Oliver Wendell Holmes observed ‘taxes are what we pay for civilized society.’

Mitt Romney became the fifth Republican presidential nominee in six tries to fail to win the popular vote. By contrast, from 1952 through 1988, the GOP won seven of 10 presidential elections, including six landslides.

Can the Republicans recover?

A good start would be to pick up a copy of David Frum’s Why Romney Lost (And What the GOP Can Do About It).  The former Bush speechwriter who is now a contributing editor to Newsweek/Daily Beast writes that “the road to renewal begins with this formula: 21st-century conservatism must become economically inclusive, environmentally responsible, culturally modern, and intellectually credible.” He acknowledges it will take time and effort, “although we all have our 10-point plans, the immediate need is for a plan with just this one goal: we must emancipate ourselves from prior mistakes and adapt to contemporary realities.”

The Grand Old Party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and Reagan has their work cut out it.

A former Canadian diplomat, Colin Robertson is a Senior Strategic Advisor for  McKenna, Long and Aldridge LLP living in Ottawa, Canada and working with the Canadian Council of Chief Executives. He is Vice President and Senior Research Fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University. He is vice chair of the board of Canada World Youth. He is a member of the board of the Conference of Defence Associations Institute and immediate past president of the National Capital Branch of the Canadian International Council. He is an Honorary Captain (Royal Canadian Navy) assigned to the Strategic Communications Directorate.