Presidential Candidates, Each Sold Separately

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Presidential Candidates, Each Sold Separately

Mark Hanna used to say, "there are two things important in politics.The first is money and I forget the second." The next president will take the oath of office in 2017, but between now and then expect a lot of money to be spent buying the ear of the next president. The large amount of spending will be driven in part because there are presently 22 candidates vying for the two major party nominations. If Prof. Lawrence Lessig makes it official, there will be 23.

Our campaign finance laws maintain the legal fiction that there is a difference between money given directly to a candidate's campaign and money spent on ads in support of the candidate that benefit them. Your local billionaire can still only give $5400 (or $2700 per election per candidate) to a candidate for federal office. But at the very same time the wealthy can spend an unlimited amount on ads touting their favorite candidate or trashing the object of their ire.

I don't know about you, but I'd be mighty grateful if someone spent a million in support of me. And I’d probably be more grateful for the million spent than the $5400 given directly.

The wealthy have had the right to spend lavishly on independent ad buys since Buckley v. Valeo in 1976. But the real spending spiked after Citizens United and a case called SpeechNow with the advent of the Super PAC. According to, in 2010 Super PACs raised $828 million and spent $609 million in the federal election.

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Spending through a Super PAC, even if there is one funder ponying up 95 percent or more of the money, gives the illusion that there are groups involved—often with an appropriately Orwellian name—instead of just one random rich guy. Using Super PACs as a vehicle, in 2012 Sheldon Adelson and his wife spent $93 million, William "Bill" Koch of the Koch Brothers spent $4.8 million and Foster Friess spent $2.6 million.

And already we see billionaires lining up behind 2016 candidates in the “money primary” like they were buying so many action figures in a toy store with matching podiums, blue suits, and karate grip. Of course, like so many toys, each candidate is sold separately. And the spending has already started. As Mother Jones recently put it, “These 8 Republican Sugar Daddies Are Already Placing Their Bets on 2016.”

The other phenomenon that has happened is some are backing more than one candidate. With 5 Dems and 17 Republicans, the Center for Public Integrity, argues that “[i]t’s speed dating season for presidential campaign contributors.”

There is no rule that says a donor must only back one candidate. If they want, they can hedge their bets and back two or three. Hell, if they want, they can try to collect them all. At least ten donors are backing two or more of the Republican candidates.

Donors don’t have to be loyal to a single political party either.  Seventeen mega spenders are already backing Republican Bush and Democrat Clinton, who may end up as respectively the most popular GI Joe and American Girl doll of 2016. For example, John Tyson, chairman of Tyson Foods, has supported both Bush and Clinton. The same is true of Richard Parsons, the former head of Time Warner, and David Stevens, the CEO of the Mortgage Bankers Association.  For a full list of the seventeen Clinton/Bush supporters see here.

Now it’s not necessarily a bad thing for there to be over 20 candidates for president over a year out. It’s a big country with diverse views. But because the presidential public financing system was allowed to atrophy, each of these candidates must run in privately funded races. And this has led to the unseemly spectacles of multiple candidates flying to California for the “Koch” primary or to Las Vegas for the “Adelson” primary. The only primaries that should matter are the ones with actual voters. But the reality is the donor class is likely to shape the choice of candidates long before any Iowans caucus or a New Hampshirite cast a single ballot.

Ciara Torres-Spelliscy

Ciara Torres-Spelliscy

Ciara Torres-Spelliscy is a Brennan Center Fellow and an Associate Professor of Law at Stetson University College of Law. She is the author of Safeguarding Markets from Pernicious Pay to Play: A Model Explaining Why the SEC Regulates Money in Politics.

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