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Money Talks in Politics, But What Does It Say?
By Damon Circosta
Published: Nov. 16, 2009
RALEIGH - We’ve all heard the old adage that money talks.
For a small business, money can tell you how popular your product is. For a nonprofit organization, money can tell you how supportive people are of your mission. For politicians, money is often used as shorthand for how viable your campaign is. Money certainly talks in politics, but what exactly is it saying?
Even though we are still a year away from the general election, candidates are hard at work raising funds to run for office. They are doing this not just because campaigning in this day and age is tremendously expensive. Just as important, candidates want to make a good showing in what has become the “money primary.”
In order to prove viability, anyone seeking public office tries to secure funding from political donors and party regulars who act as gatekeepers for the general public. If you are successful with this moneyed crowd, the conventional wisdom is that you will have demonstrated the necessary fund-raising prowess to be a competitive candidate. As the saying goes, money talks.
The money primary often gets reported in the media, but what is reported doesn’t tell the whole story. We tend to focus on the total amount of money raised and pay very little attention to the other numbers that come out of a campaign.
Several Democratic competitors are shaking the money tree as they jockey for support to take on Republican Sen. Richard Burr in 2010. The fate of these campaigns rests largely on a small cadre of donors who underwrite the money primary. A cursory glance of campaign filings will tell you that the people who write checks early in a primary tend to give in large amounts.
The most recent campaign report from lawyer Kenneth Lewis, one of the Democrats hoping to take on Burr, illustrates the concept of the money primary. Lewis has raised $259,167 and did so from 241 individuals. Forty-nine of those were for $2,400 -- the maximum amount allowed by law. The average contribution was over $1,000. Of the nearly 10 million North Carolinians Lewis could go on to represent, few can afford to give such a contribution.
Lewis isn’t the only candidate in search of big checks early in the campaign season. Across both political parties and throughout the country the money primary is almost exclusively the domain of the well heeled. Despite solid support and enthusiasm from voters, many would-be public servants are nixed because they are unable to land large donors early in the year.
Over time, the money primary distorts our democracy. It gives those who can write big checks an outsized seat at the table and it shuts others out. Politicians will forever be indebted to donors willing to invest heavily in them early on. These folks will have access -- and possibly get favors -- that your typical Tar Heel can only dream of.
Money talks and raising money early says that you are a contender. But instead of focusing so heavily on what the total amount raised says about a campaign, what else could money say if we were willing to listen?
If, for instance, we were to focus on the number of donors, not just how much they gave, wouldn’t that give us a better picture of how much support a candidate has? Why don’t we examine where the money comes from? If future constituents from a wide variety of backgrounds and occupations are willing to invest in your campaign, isn’t that better than a few wealthy folks who might not even live in your state?
The current campaign finance system is skewed in favor of the few. In order for us to hear the other things money could say, we are going to have to alter the system so that more people can meaningfully participate in this early phase of the campaign. Money talks. What would it say about that?