No, not the end of the Trump Era. Or the Obama Era. Or an “era” named after a politician, including the Reagan Era. Or even the end of the New Deal, or the Great Society, or whatever.
It’s actually the end of the era of campaign finance “reform,” born in 1969 died in 2020. Many people helped end this era, among them Barack Obama (whose fundraising prowess destroyed the presidential public finance program) and Donald Trump (who showed that you could capture a major party’s nomination without spending “big money.”) But it was Michael Bloomberg that actually ended the era.
A political era may depend on many myths. But its foundation must have some truth to it. The era of “campaign finance reform” depended on the faith that “money buys elections.” Michael Bloomberg spent almost $1 billion trying to get the Democratic nomination for the presidency. He made almost no headway toward that goal.
Meanwhile, the man who is likely to receive the Democratic nomination — Joseph Biden — was well behind his rivals just before he began his march to victory:
Biden, who brought in $18.1 million in February, was outraised by four other Democratic presidential contenders that month: Bernie Sanders ($47.7 million), Elizabeth Warren ($29.5 million), Amy Klobuchar ($18.7 million) and Pete Buttigieg ($18.6 million).
Sanders outspent Biden $46 million to $13 million in February — and still finished the month with more cash in the bank, $18.7 million to $12.1 million.
Recall also that Donald Trump raised and spent just over half as much as Hillary Clinton did during the 2016 election.
So if you believe that “money buys elections,” consider that the Clinton and Bloomberg cases above involve over $1 billion. Consider also Sanders spent more than three times what Biden did just before the Vermont senator plunged to earth, electorally speaking. What do you think now? Is it time to update your belief in light of this evidence?
It may be that the proposition “money buys elections” was never really an empirical hypothesis. If so, it cannot be refuted by facts. This belief — a dogmatic faith really — may just be part and parcel of populism, a pathological aspect of popular government. And populists are, as we have seen, extremely poor at reality testing.
So, my headline may turn out to be wrong. Campaign finance “reform” may live on in a populist age, an era when calls for “reform” are an apt and ironic measure of how corrupt our republic has become.