The New Wild West: Money and the 2016 Presidential Cycle

New Wild West event panel

Kai Bauer reviews “The New Wild West: Money and the 2016 Presidential Cycle,” held at The New School on February 16th.

Campaign finances often dominate the discourse and reality of U.S. politics, and the presidential campaigns of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders seem to be redefining how money is raised and how much needs to be spent to win. Jeb Bush’s recent withdrawal from the presidential race seems to affirm that the presidency cannot be bought. In this context, The New School held “The New Wild West: Money and the 2016 Presidential Cycle” on February 16th to further understand the nature of finance in the presidential election.

Adam Smith, the Communications Director for Every Voice, said that candidates do matter and regardless of how much money a campaign spends, spending cannot guarantee success. Ken Vogel, the chief investigative correspondent for POLITICO, explained that while money has always been influential in politics, there is a new ability for rogue billionaires to fund candidates like Ted Cruz and reject the “party bosses.” Vogel continued by claiming that even if a self-funded or small donor candidate like Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump wins, the national discourse and partisan orthodoxy has changed because of this SuperPAC money at the increasingly centralized margins. Zach Allen, a Democratic funding consultant, reemphasized Vogel’s idea that SuperPACs can keep candidates in a race that they would normally fall out of sooner.  

Jack Oliver, the Finance Chair for Jeb Bush’s SuperPAC, highlighted the role that the media, rather than money, plays in the election. He asserted that Fox News and MSNBC are the most powerful SuperPACs and that Twitter has played an extremely important role in this election cycle. Oliver also reiterated that transparency is key to fair SuperPACs. Adam Smith countered by arguing that no matter how much transparency the campaign finance system has, there will still be voter apathy because voters can see how little their voice matters in politics.

Christina Greer, associate professor of Politics at Fordham University, discussed how money affects diversity in politics. As the only woman and black person on the panel, Greer explained that black women have a particularly difficult time fundraising at the state level and that this directly correlates to the fact that there have been no black female governors and only one black female senator. Greer asserted that SuperPACs disenfranchise and invisibilize people of color and women by putting rich white men ahead of everyone else. She said that Wall Street banks profit from poor black and Latino/a mortgages and that these profits buy Wall Street more access to politicians.

Jack Oliver reminded the audience that the SuperPAC problem is not an exclusively Republican problem, and that liberal billionaires like George Soros donated exorbitant amounts of money to Democratic campaigns. Raj Goyle, former Kansas legislator and member of Obama’s 2012 finance committee, explained that the needed changes must come from the ground up. Goyle stressed the need for a cultural shift that switches the attention from the national level to the city council level. According to Goyle, by taking small donor financing to the next level, like Bernie Sanders is doing, there can be a decisive change on the state and local levels. However, Greer argued that African Americans are largely more politically active on all levels than whites and they are not invested in either Democratic candidate in the 2016 election due to voter fatigue.

Criminal justice reform, an issue that disproportionately affects the black population due to mass incarceration, has been receiving a lot of bipartisan support in recent years. Vogel, who often ties money to policy in his exposés, has been examining the brothers David and Charles Koch and their relation to the criminal justice system. Vogel clarified that while the Koch brothers’ spending on criminal justice reform does have a component of self-interest through leniency for corporate criminals, many others are impacted in the process. Vogel argues that the Koch brothers don’t need to put money into politics because they had their best returns under Obama and putting money into politics may actually hurt their bottom line by making themselves a public target. This further complicates the role of money in politics and the nature of its intentions.

Goyle asserted that a lot of transparency issues would be solved if the IRS enforced the 501(c)(4) rule. He explained that political nonprofits can receive unlimited, undisclosed contributions, which results in a lot of the “dark money” in political campaigns. These nonprofits are supposed to have a limited political role, but this is hardly enforced by the IRS. One audience member countered Goyle, saying that this transparency issue is not a purposeful product of the IRS, but rather a result of severe underfunding by the federal government. Despite digging into these many layers, the 2016 election cycle will continue to break norms and expectations due to SuperPACs, grassroots movements, Citizens United, and more.