For quite some time Donald Trump has been the frontrunner for the Republican nomination to the US presidency. After hitting a brief setback in Iowa, Trump won in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and then Nevada. Heading into ‘Super Tuesday,’ he is favoured by 12.9 per cent nationally compared to Ted Cruz, and by 16.5 per cent over Marco Rubio.
Conventional wisdom would have it that Trump, the billionaire real estate magnate, would surely outspend the Republican field, to the detriment of democratic politicians. After all, we’re told that money buys politics, especially in the US.
The reality is that in eight months of campaigning Trump and his allied political action committees (known as PACs) have raised $27.3 million. This is tied with the relatively unknown John Kasich for the least amount of financial contributions to candidates in either party. To put this in perspective, consider that Cruz, Rubio, and their respective PACs have raised a combined $188.8 million, yet are in all likelihood just a few weeks away from losing the nomination to the controversial political amateur, Trump.
Furthermore, the Trump campaign and pro-Trump PACs have spent $25.5 million, which is the second least among the remaining candidates.
In Canada, we have also been told that money taints elections; however, election results have not shown this to be the case. In the 2015 federal election, the Conservatives had a fundraising advantage, and yet the Liberals won a majority.
If campaign financing is not the corruptor of all things democratic, how, then, should we understand its role in politics?
Campaign financing is a neutral and legitimate form of political expression, just like any other.
When it comes to advertising, there is merely a difference in degree, not in kind when comparing the running of a 30 second television commercial and, say, speaking into a microphone at an event. The only thing money decides is how many people hear the speaker.
Additionally, there is more than enough cash to go around so that no single candidate, party, or political ideology has an insurmountable advantage. For every Koch brother, there’s a George Soros. Small but enthusiastic donors can still prove formidable, as Bernie Sanders’ unlikely success has shown. His campaign has raised $96.3 million thus far, without the aid of a PAC.
Campaign spending is not a determinant to voter turnout either; in 2012, Mitt Romney outspent President Obama and won the white vote by 20 per cent, but Obama scored decisive victories among the black, Hispanic, and Asian votes, who together made up almost 28 per cent of the electorate, their largest share ever.
Finally, thanks to traditional grassroots activism and social media, those with limited funds can achieve national recognition without ever having to buy a billboard or television spot. Donald Trump has more followers and fans on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram than any of his competitors, and other than Bernie Sanders, he is the only candidate whose rallies can fill professional sports arenas.
The power of social media and on-the-ground organizing has also been demonstrated by the activist movement Black Lives Matter.
An election, after all, is a competition of ideas, and consequently we should ensure that more of them are shared.
Through sustained social media campaigns as well as protests, Black Lives Matter has managed to drive the conversation around criminal justice reform for over two years, with no signs of slowing down.
This is not to naïvely say that politics is free of corruption, or that money has no influence on our leaders. But if we want to clean up politics, perhaps we should look deeper into what happens after elections. This includes staying vigilant and redirecting our attention to when foreign interests make donations to a cabinet secretary’s private charity, when a justice minister’s husband works as a lobbyist, or when the banking industry and its federal regulator share a revolving door.
That is the kind of money in politics we should be vigilant of: the money that trades hands during governance, not during campaign season. A campaign, no matter how loud, ugly, or chaotic it gets, is still the heart of democracy. An election, after all, is a competition of ideas, and consequently we should ensure that more of them are shared.
Emmett Choi is a fifth-year student at Victoria College studying philosophy and American Studies. His column appears every three weeks.