Predicting the results of American politics was once quite simple: The candidate with the most money won almost all the time. The logic behind that was that running a political campaign, especially at the congressional and presidential level, cost a lot of money because of ad buys, consultants, staff, and the like and only those who could depend upon big money backers were the ones who could afford to do so. It was only if you had big money backing that the media treated you as a credible candidate and gave you respectful coverage while those who did not have money were ignored and marginalized or even ridiculed.
But the campaign of Donald Trump seems to violate that rule. He has not actually spent that much money and in fact has been vastly outspent by his rivals. This article looks at the megadonors who are backing Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and we know of course that Jeb Bush spent nearly $100 million on his campaign with hardly anything to show for it.
Jane Mayer of the New Yorker wonders whether the dominance of Trump is a sign of the end of big money in politics.
Has the power of big money in politics suddenly shrunk? There are many reasons to think so. Despite having spent surprisingly little on his Presidential campaign, and running in opposition to the Republican élite, Donald Trump is now the undisputed G.O.P. front-runner, after picking up seven more states on Super Tuesday. Jeb Bush, the Republican candidate with the best-funded Super PAC, was forced to drop out last month. By the time Bush suspended his campaign, the Super PAC Right to Rise had spent almost ninety million dollars on his behalf, with almost nothing to show for it. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, who both have their own roster of ultra-wealthy backers, appear to be in a struggle for the G.O.P. élite’s last leaky lifeboat.
Bill Moyers and Michael Winship write that the big money people are worried that they are losing control over this election and are calling for them to quickly rally and defeat Trump so that the establishment re-establishes control.
David Brooks is a worried man.
Like many establishment Republicans, the conservative columnist for The New York Times sees the barbarians pouring through the gates and fears for both his party and the republic. Hail, Trump! Hail, Cruz! It’s enough to send a sober centrist dashing through the Forum in search of a cudgel.
There was Brooks on a recent edition of the PBS NewsHour, his angst spilling out across the airwaves like fog from a nightmare: “I wish we had gray men in suits,” he told Judy Woodruff, conjuring in some nostalgia-minded the courtly cabal of well-heeled businessmen who drafted war hero Dwight D. Eisenhower to run for president as a Republican.
“We don’t have that,” Brooks continued. “But the donor class could do something.”
So let’s get this straight: One of the most prominent of Republican elites in the country, who has even been touted as President Obama’s “favorite pundit” (we’re not making this up!), is calling on the donor class to rescue the party from the rabble. Game’s over, voters: The oligarchs will decide this election.
For that’s what they are: a small, unbelievably wealthy group of the powerful and privileged who already have a tighter grip on our nation, its government, politics and economy than the rapacious robber barons of our first Gilded Age. Brooks and like-minded elites believe they must be trusted to do the right thing. Let them be the Deciderers.
What Trump has done is clarified the picture to say that it is not the actual spending of money that is the key but obtaining the credibility that you are a ‘serious’ candidate. Money still matters but perhaps not in the simple way I had thought. Money can buy you credibility but you do not have to actually spend a lot of it. As long as you give the perception that you have money and are willing to spend it, that alone buys you the credibility. If you then have the ability to grab the attention of the news media, then you become a serious candidate.
It may be that Trump is sui generis and his candidacy is of a kind that we will not see again. But the US has plenty of very wealthy people and it may well be that some are looking closely at Trump’s campaign and wondering if they could use it as a model for their own candidacy at a future date. The former mayor of New York, billionaire Michael Bloomberg, has money, even more than Trump, but does not have his gift for grabbing attention and hence cannot replicate his model.
But future elections may see a multiplicity of Trump-like candidates competing against each other.