How Money Runs Our Politics

Joshua Roberts/Reuters
Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson—who spent at least $92 million to support ­Republican candidates in the 2012 election—waiting with his wife, Miriam, for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress, Washington, D.C., March 2015

With each election come innovations in ways that the very rich donate and the candidates collect and spend increasingly large amounts of money on campaigns. And with each decision on campaign financing the current Supreme Court’s conservative majority, with Chief Justice John Roberts in the lead, removes some restrictions on money in politics. We are now at the point where, practically speaking, there are no limits on how much money an individual, a corporation, or a labor union can give to a candidate for federal office (though the unions can hardly compete).

Today a presidential candidate has to have two things and maybe three before making a serious run: at least one billionaire willing to spend limitless amounts on his or her campaign and a “Super PAC”—a supposedly independent political action committee that accepts large donations that have to be disclosed. The third useful asset is an organization that under the tax code is supposedly “operated exclusively to promote social welfare.” The relevant section of the tax code, 501(c)(4), would appear to be intended for the Sierra Club and the like, not political money. But the IRS rules give the political groups the same protection.

The contributions to these last groups have come to be called “dark money” because the donors can remain secret. The very wealthy can contribute to such dark money groups in the knowledge that people won’t know who is trying to buy a candidate.

At this stage of the campaign, while some politicians are ostensibly still agonizing over whether or not to run, the would-be candidates are engaged in setting up the “independent” fundraising groups that will support them; they aren’t even bothering to call mere millionaires. And the idea that campaign contributions aren’t intended as a quid pro quo is fast crumbling.

Fortunately for the candidates, given the way the benefits of the economy are concentrated there’s an adequate supply of billionaires—people who enjoy investing in a candidate, in whom they may actually believe, and whose gratitude would be most useful if that candidate were to win. Meanwhile, the billionaire can indulge in name-dropping, in the reality or illusion of being on the inside of a campaign with the prospect of access to the candidate who ends up in the Oval Office.

With enough money behind him or her, even a preposterous candidate can at least for a while be a real factor in the nominating contest. The billionaires sometimes seemingly come out of nowhere. Few had heard of Foster Friess, who suddenly popped up in 2012 supporting Rick Santorum—a seemingly improbable prospect for winning the presidency given his retrograde social views and his reputation for…

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