2014... 2016... 2018: Win or Lose, Big Money Still Matters in Politics

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Sunlight Foundation

2014... 2016... 2018: Win or Lose, Big Money Still Matters in Politics

One billionaire spent more than $70 million in the 2014 election. But whether or not big money wins or loses specific races, the democratic system always suffers in the end. (Image: donkeyhotey/flickr/cc)

A few scenes from the recent past: Hopeful polls that showed close races prove a mirage on Election Day; a billionaire spending $50 million of his own money to elect, among other things, senators who would push his issues; super PACs run by savvy political insiders with years of electoral experience spend millions buying ads to prop up weak candidates, many of whom go down to defeat. Election Day 2014? Yes. But Election Day 2012 as well.

Two years ago, after the titans of outside spending like American Crossroads, the American Future Fund and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce futilely spent tens of millions supporting slates of candidates that went down to defeat in 2012, Sunlight noted that, even in defeat, big money still mattered. And while big donors like Tom Steyer and the Democratic Party insiders running Democratic-leaning outside spending groups might not be celebrating over it this morning, big money — even losing big money — matters in Washington. Here are five reasons why:

1. Not all big bettors were losers

While Harry Reid's now not-so-merry band of outside spenders, the Senate Majority PAC, might have spent 91 percent of their $32 million on losing races, other groups did decidedly better. For example, Crossroads GPS, the Karl Rove-connected dark money group, had a 96 percent return on investment, spending $26 million to elect Republicans. And in 2012, while most of the $92 million that Sheldon and Miriam Adelson contributed to super PACs was spent on losing candidates, congressional Republicans were happy to introduce a bill for the casino mogul that would have banned Internet gambling. Similarly, Tom Steyer will have no problem getting congressional Democrats to take his phone calls.

2. There are no permanent losers in politics

As we wrote, word for word, two years ago:

An incumbent president wins a second term by an overwhelming Electoral College majority over a Massachusetts politician who, despite being aided by hundreds of millions in spending by outside groups, loses the election in a handful of hotly-contested battleground states. The president proclaims his victory as a mandate … to privatize Social Security. That was 2004, when President George W. Bush prevailed over Democratic candidate John Kerry and dozens of outside groups like the Media Fund, Moveon.org and Americans Coming Together.

In February 2005, the Center for Public Integrity reported that some of the biggest spenders in the 2004 campaign — both conservative and liberal — were gearing up to do battle over Bush's proposals to change Social Security. The same donors who saw John Kerry go down to defeat in Ohio, and Republicans pick up Senate and House seats in the bargain, came out on top in 2005 when Bush's Social Security proposals went down in flames. Super PACs and political nonprofits are already making the switch from backing and attacking politicians to backing and attacking policies.

Similarly, candidates backed by the National Rifle Association had a poor showing in the 2012 election. A few months later, the NRA went back to spending, trying to stymie Senate action on gun control measures in the wake of the Sandy Hook mass shooting at Newtown, Conn. Even though President Barack Obama pushed gun control, even though the measure proposed dealt with background checks and not bans on types of guns or magazines, the measure went down to defeat.

3. There are permanent insiders in politics

Most of the big outside spending groups active in 2014 — Senate Majority PAC, House Majority PAC, Crossroads GPS and the Congressional Leadership Fund, to name a few — are run by former party, campaign, congressional or executive branch insiders. While not all of them are household names, they have names known to members of Congress, and can put a big donor in touch with a lawmaker with ease.

4. 2016 anyone?

The race to replace Obama, which will feature two contested primaries, is well underway. Leadership PACs and super PACs associated with the potential presidential candidates made investments backing 2014 candidates (nothing like an endorsement in Iowa or New Hampshire), and they've also beens spending small fortunes on strategy and research, list building and fundraising. In addition to building their own campaign war chests, presidential candidates — some of whom may be sitting senators, House members and governors — will need their own super PACs and the big money behind them to compete in Iowa, New Hampshire and beyond. The individuals and organizations who wrote six and seven figure checks to super PACs will continue to be courted by the political insiders who run super PACs and the politicians who rely on them.

Plus, the Senate map in 2016 is far more favorable to Democrats than Republicans. Those deep pocketed donors who had a rough night after the polls closed last Tuesday have a good chance to be celebrating.

5. 2018 anyone?

It's early, but just as the 2016 map favors Democratic Senate hopefuls, the 2018 map may work well for Republicans.

Big donors will have reason to keep their checkbooks close at hand, and the politicians counting on them will have reason to give them access.

Bill Allison

Bill Allison is the Editorial Director at the Sunlight Foundation.

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