Money follows the messenger: Conventional wisdom has it that candidates for public office sell their souls to the special interests and, once in office, do the bidding of their moneyed masters. One version of this story argues that the United States has a “money primary” prior to the actual presidential primaries. Wealthy contributors refuse to support candidates who favor the people over the powerful. In the end, Americans are left with two major-party candidates equally beholden to the wealthy.
Howard Dean began 2003 as an obscure ex-governor of a small Northeastern state. He finished the year as the front-runner for the Democratic nomination and leader in all the polls. At some point in 2003, Dean found his voice and his message: He was against the war in Iraq, against President Bush and for “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” That resounded among angry Democrats - and they offered more than a promise of future votes: Dean quickly became the most successful Democratic presidential fund-raiser in history.
He did it in part by learning how to use the Internet to make contributing easy - but largely because he offered to lead. And Democratic activists were willing to put their money where their convictions were. By the end of 2003, Dean’s message had raised $40 million, more than enough to bring his candidacy before the public.
Votes, not money, determine elections: Conventional wisdom says the candidate with the most money invariably wins. His or her quality and ideology don’t matter, nor do the wishes of the public. Yet Dean had the most money before Democrats began to vote; John Kerry was all but broke.
Once the voting began, Dean bet almost all his money on Iowa and New Hampshire. He lost miserably, finishing second in the former and then third. As it turned out, Democratic voters wanted the strongest candidate against President Bush, not the candidate most strongly expressing their deepest hopes and fears. Money couldn’t change that judgment.
Partisanship determines campaign-finance laws: In 1974, Congress approved taxpayer financing of presidential campaigns. The laws’ authors said federal subsidies would take money grubbing out of the system and thus prevent the corruption of the White House.
In fact, it was in fact just another partisan gambit: The Democratic Party was in danger of falling far behind the Republicans in spending on presidential elections. By equalizing spending, public financing closed that gap. Without the system, Jimmy Carter would have spent millions less than Gerald Ford in 1976; with public financing, Carter and Ford spent the same sum, and Carter won an extremely close race.
In 2003, Dean became the first Democrat to forego public financing in the primaries, calling it necessary to beating the president in November 2004. Democrats had long praised taxpayer financing of presidential campaigns as essential to democracy and clean elections - yet no one criticized Dean (or Kerry) for foregoing public money. Beating Bush was far more important than “keeping our elections clean.”
Dean’s decision, in other words, made it crystal clear that public financing was always about partisanship, not corruption or clean elections.
One day, Howard Dean will be a political trivia question: Which Democrat raised the most money to garner the fewest votes? For now, his campaign teaches us a clear and compelling lesson: The conventional wisdom about money in elections is all wrong.