Campaign finance and the 2020 U.S. election

There is an old adage that “money isn’t everything.” However, in politics money equals success in elections. Without it, candidates cannot seriously mount a campaign, and certainly the candidate with the most money has an advantage. In fact, the issue of money in U.S. campaigns has been an issue for over a century. Ironically, while there is a level of money that permits entry into American political contests, there are limits to its impact. The 2020 Election shows that full campaign coffers do not always guarantee victory.

Pundits prior to election night predicted a “blue wave,” almost guaranteeing a repudiation of President Trump and the Republican Party’s policies over the past four years. What resulted, however, was a picture of the United States that showed a razor-sharp split between Republican and Democratic voters. While the winner of the presidential election is former Vice President Joe Biden (although litigation will continue for some time to come), what is clear is that the U.S. is split, more or less, evenly. We know that, not just because of the results, but because of the impact (or lack thereof) of the money spent in the 2020 election.

The money spent by Democrats on Senate and House races in the U.S. in 2020 demonstrates there was a clear cash advantage in several races. Democrats targeted Senate races in Kentucky (Mitch McConnell), Maine (Susan Collins), and South Carolina (Lindsey Graham), and spent hundreds of millions of dollars only to lose all of those races. Moreover, Democrats spent millions of dollars on House races, only to have Republican candidates pick up congressional seats.

Democratic spending in the 2020 election did end up with some obvious successes. They held their majority in the House, won the Presidency, and have a chance to win the Senate majority. But taken as a whole these victories are not overwhelming, which begs the question what is the power of money in American politics?

The answer to this question suggests three things about modern American campaigns. First, candidate message matters. Some Democrats blamed the Green New Deal and Defund the Police movements for Democratic losses in competitive districts. Likewise, President Donald Trump’s tone and combativeness is blamed for turning away traditionally Republican suburban voters, especially women. Messages can be amplified, spread and promoted, but message quality is ultimately free. Resonance of political message matters, and it is one of those intangible aspects to a political campaign that cannot be bought.

Second, candidate quality matters. There were some very competitive House and Senate races in 2020. Senate races in Georgia, North Carolina, and Arizona were close, perhaps because those races were reflections of the Presidential election. Still, other races that were thought to be extremely competitive weren’t. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell handily defeated a Democratic challenger who raised millions of dollars. Senator Lindsey Graham defeated his well-financed Democratic opponent. Senator Susan Collins, considered by many an extremely vulnerable Republican in a very Democratic state, retained her seat. What is the similarity in these three races? The incumbents had a longstanding relationship with the electorate. It appears that the voters in those states still liked them, and despite money amplifying the opponent’s message that was not enough to unseat them.

Third, campaign finance as a political issue has lost the traction it once had. The 1990s and early 2000s was a time when money in politics was a major political issue. The McCain-Feingold Act (formally the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002), and the Citizens United v. FEC decision in 2010 were major political issues that garnered national attention. In fact, President Barack Obama chided the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United in his 2010 State of the Union speech, stating that the decision allowed “special interests” and “foreign corporations” to give money to campaigns. Famously, Justice Alito mouthed “not true.” However, the issue of campaign finance as a campaign issue is largely over. Parties have figured out the new norms of super-PACs and small donor funding online. While candidates may criticize each other over who their contributors are, the end result is that there is no current movement politically to change much of the way campaigns are financed.

With the results of 2020 election still contested, and election litigation ongoing, what should we make of campaign finance? It seems that if 2020 has shown anything it highlights that admission to the campaign arena is expensive, but success requires something money cannot buy.