Commentary

This Is Reform?

By Patrick Basham
November 28, 2002
McCain-Feingold style campaign finance regulation is the new campaign reality. And what will this reformist utopia look like? Overall, the allegedly reformed campaign of the future will be less competitive, less controlled by candidates and their parties, more influenced by the mainstream media, and involve fewer voters than the typical recent campaign. That doesn’t look so good.

Everyone (except perhaps congressmen) favors more competitive elections. Unfortunately, the ban on soft money fundraising by the national parties will make our elections significantly more uncompetitive. How? Both major parties currently use soft money to increase the competitiveness of individual congressional races. Without those partisan resources pouring into targeted districts, fewer incumbents will be threatened by serious challengers, thereby further reducing political competition.

Federal law bans the use of corporate or union-donated soft money in advertisements that expressly advocate the election or defeat of a candidate for federal office. The new restrictions on independent advertising will further hamper the efforts of the average challenger. Overall, independent advertising campaigns funded by groups representing business, labor, or single-issue interests are disproportionately critical of incumbents, indirectly aiding their opponents.

As the cumulative effect of the loss of soft money and constraints on independent advertising will be to reduce political competition, even fewer candidates will step forward to challenge incumbents, thereby further reducing political choice.

The brazenly unconstitutional restrictions on third party advertising prior to primary day are intended to “return control” over campaigns to the candidates and their parties. However, as a result of the soft money ban, both the parties and their candidates will lose influence over their own campaigns. In fact, McCain-Feingold arguably constitutes the unilateral disarmament of the major parties.

The national parties currently coordinate their advertising campaigns with their respective senatorial and congressional candidates. Upon implementation of the new campaign finance regulations, the parties will have less operational and strategic influence over the campaigns conducted in specific states and districts.

Special interest groups, corporations, and labor unions will retain previously donated soft money funds. At an earlier point of the campaign, those groups will spend that money independently of the parties and candidates. In addition, prior soft money contributions from wealthy individuals will flow to those special interest campaigns instead of to their current destination: the national parties.

Ironically, during the final 60 days of the general election campaign of the future, the prescribed channeling of third party advertising through PACs, paid for only in hard money donations, will increase the number of PACs and the proliferation of PAC-run micro-campaigns. A large number of such micro-campaigns will perform a series of one-off advertising attacks in specific races. These hit-and-run operations will all occur completely outside the control, but not the purview, of individual campaigns and the national parties.

Campaign finance regulators decry public apathy, especially as reflected in low levels of voter turnout. It’s asserted that the traditionally low levels of voter turnout in both presidential and mid-term elections are attributable, in part, to negative advertising paid for by soft money. What’s ignored in this debate is the fact that the parties do much more with their soft money revenue than simply execute negative advertising campaigns.

The parties also use soft money to register voters and conduct get-out-the-vote efforts, especially among minority voters. The inevitable reduction in financial transfers from the national to state party organizations will handicap voter identification and mobilization efforts at the local level. The best available research concludes that the federal soft money ban will reduce voter turnout by approximately two percent.

The mainstream media stand to benefit from the new restrictions upon political speech. During the latter period of a general election or a primary campaign, when the undecided swing voters who determine the outcome of most close elections finalize their voting intentions, the editorial influence of newspapers will be largely uncontested by other non-partisan actors.

The print medium will also be a financial beneficiary of campaign finance regulation. The constraints on independently sponsored broadcast advertising will transfer advertising spending from the mediums of television and radio to newspapers and magazines, but will make it less likely that the electorate will have access to comparable levels of political information.

The unintended and unforeseen consequences of these new constraints on political speech will serve only to further the journey of American political campaigning down a path seemingly anathema to the stated desires of the leading campaign finance regulators. Most Americans support real campaign finance reform. But that is not the future promised to them by the self-described reformers.

Patrick Basham is senior fellow in the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute.