Commentary

This Is Reform? Understanding the New Campaign Reality

By Patrick Basham
March 22, 2002

By adding President Bush’s signature to the legislation passed by Congress, campaign finance reform advocates will hit an anti-democratic triple. They will make future elections less competitive, strengthen the mainstream media’s grip on political discourse, and run roughshod over the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech.

In practice, this hitting streak will soon turn into an outright victory for incumbency protection. McCain-style campaign finance reform, replete with a national soft money ban and severe restrictions on third party advertising, is the new campaign reality.

What will this reformist utopia look like? Let’s measure the reformed “campaign of the future” against the stated desires of the campaign finance reformers.

First, everybody says that they favor more competitive elections. In recent elections, 98 percent of incumbent congressmen successfully sought reelection. Out of 435 congressional districts, only a couple of dozen experience truly competitive elections. This state of affairs is clearly incompatible with a healthy political system. Unfortunately, the ban on soft money fundraising by the national parties will make our elections significantly more uncompetitive.

How so? Both major parties use soft money to increase the competitiveness of individual congressional races. Without those resources pouring into targeted districts, even fewer incumbents will be threatened by serious challengers, thereby reducing political competition. Furthermore, even fewer candidates will step forward to challenge these incumbents in the first place, thereby reducing political choice.

Second, campaign finance reformers decry public apathy, especially low levels of voter turnout on Election Day. What is ignored is the fact that the parties also use soft money to register voters and conduct get-out-the-vote efforts, especially among minority voters. The best available research concludes that the federal soft money ban will decrease voter turnout by two percent.

Third, the brazenly unconstitutional restrictions on third party advertising during the 60 days preceding Election Day are allegedly intended to return control over campaigns to the candidates, themselves. But, as a result of the soft money ban, the national parties, which currently coordinate their activities with their candidates, will have less influence over the campaign. Instead, special interest groups, corporations, and labor unions will retain previously donated funds and, at an earlier point of the campaign, will spend that money independently of the parties and candidates.

Furthermore, during the final few weeks of the campaign season, the prescribed channeling of third party advertising through political action committees (PACs), paid for only in hard money (i.e., small) donations, will result in the proliferation of PACs. An almost infinite number of such micro-campaigns will perform a series of one-off, hit-and-run advertising attacks in specific races - all completely outside the control, but not the purview, of individual campaigns.

The mainstream media, though, will benefit from these restrictions upon third party advertising. During the latter period of a campaign, when the undecided swing voters who determine the outcome of close elections finalize their voting intentions, the editorial influence of major newspapers and the image enhancing or destroying impact of national broadcast media reporting won’t be as comprehensively offset by independent voices frequently critical of media-dominated conventional wisdom in general and careerist politicians in particular.

Overall, the reformed campaigns of the future will be less competitive, less controlled by candidates, more influenced by the mainstream media, and involve fewer voters. Most Americans support campaign finance reform but this is not the future promised to them by campaign finance reformers.

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