Campaign Finance

The Bloomberg and Steyer Fiascoes Should Give Pause to Speech Restrictionists

No amount of money can buy victory for candidates who fail to persuade voters.

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Two and a half weeks after Bernie Sanders slammed Michael Bloomberg for trying to "buy this election," the former New York City mayor dropped out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, having spent $570 million of his own money to win 61 delegates. Tom Steyer, the other billionaire in the race, did even worse, abandoning his campaign after spending more than $250 million and earning zero delegates.

Those spectacular failures should give pause to the politicians and activists who argue that money poses a grave threat to democracy—so grave that the Constitution must be amended to authorize limits on campaign spending. The Bloomberg and Steyer fiascoes show that no amount of money can buy victory for candidates who fail to persuade voters.

Bloomberg's unprecedented ad blitz seemed to be effective at first, boosting his standing in national polls from around 3 percent in November to as high as 19 percent by early March. But when push came to shove on Super Tuesday last week, Democrats keen to replace President Donald Trump did not buy Bloomberg's argument that he was the man to do it.

The arrogance embodied in Bloomberg's strategy of skipping the early contests and debates, flooding the airwaves and internet with ads, and swooping in to rescue a party he joined less than two years ago goes a long way toward explaining why primary voters found him so unappealing. His disastrous performance during the first debate in which he participated surely didn't help, and neither did his wooden demeanor or the generally uninspiring vibe of his TV spots, which one Democratic strategist described as "mediocre messaging at massive scale."

Steyer, a hedge fund manager who had previously spent many millions of his personal fortune to support mostly losing Democratic candidates, saw almost no visible return on his investment in his own campaign. He was polling at 0 percent last July and by the time he dropped out in February had climbed all the way to 1 percent.

These meager to modest results are consistent with research on the role of money in congressional races. Although the candidate who spends the most generally wins, that pattern can be explained almost entirely by donors' eagerness to back strong contenders.

For incumbents, who were reelected 91 percent of the time in the House and 84 percent of the time in the Senate last time around, it has proven remarkably difficult to show that spending more attracts more votes. Money matters most for challengers, which means that caps on spending are apt to help maintain the status quo rather than shake things up.

While "money isn't speech," as advocates of restrictions keep reminding us, money is necessary for speech to reach a wide audience, which is especially important for candidates who do not enjoy the manifold advantages of incumbency, including name recognition, constant visibility, good will earned through constituent service, and voters' tendency to stick with the guy they know unless there is a compelling reason to take a chance on someone else. Restrictions on spending impair a candidate's ability to get his message across, just as direct restrictions on the use of telephones, video equipment, computers, or the internet would, even though those technologies are not speech either.

Limiting access to the means of mass communication obviously would violate the First Amendment, and so does limiting their use by telling candidates how much money they can spend, as the Supreme Court has repeatedly held. Yet Democrats are so obsessed with the supposedly corrupting impact of money in politics that they are ready to authorize such restrictions by fundamentally rewriting the law of free speech, as a constitutional amendment backed by every Democrat in the Senate and more than nine out of 10 Democrats in the House would do.

Contrary to the fears underlying that illiberal initiative, voters are perfectly capable of rejecting even the most powerfully amplified messages. Just ask Bloomberg and Steyer.

© Copyright 2020 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

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  1. Money isn’t (always) speech, but when you’re spending money on furthering your speech, Congress Shall Make No Law…….

  2. “Those spectacular failures [of big campaign spending] should give pause to the politicians and activists who argue that money poses a grave threat to democracy—so grave that the Constitution must be amended to authorize limits on campaign spending.”

    It’s great to see money wasted attempting to buy government favors and power. It represents a failure to corrupt government, putting a cost on it.

    1. “money wasted attempting to buy… power… represents a failure to corrupt government”

      This can’t be true. I’ve been assured everywhere, even by Reason, that a small Russian investment of $100k in Facebook and Twitter ads bought the election.
      Steyer and Bloomberg probably secretly spent their combined $700,000,000 ad budget on charities… like free abortions for pipeline protesters or other woke stuff, because spending 7000 times more than the Russkies will win all the worlds elections.

      1. even by Reason

        Far as I know, Reason has made no such claim, and frequently criticizes those who do. Give credit where it’s due.

        1. Never doubt the ability of Peter Suderman to parrot DNC talking points.
          https://reason.com/2018/07/16/trumps-putin-summit-is-another-reminder/

          1. Um, here’s what Peter Suderman actually said.

            “That Russia interfered is now well-documented in both a report by Republican lawmakers and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s recent indictment against Russian military intelligence operatives. Allowing that Russia interfered in the election is not equivalent to saying that Russia’s actions swung the election in favor of Trump, but the president cannot seem to distinguish between the two.”

            That doesn’t seem to match what you say he said.

            1. Precisely. My only quibble with Suderman’s statement there is that I prefer the term “meddling” to “interference”. The latter makes is sound more successful.

  3. I’ve just read Scott Adams’s warnings against trying to read people’s minds, but when I see a whole political party eagerly embracing censorship of political speech, my immediate hypothesis is that they’re up to something other than a sincere attempt to promote the public good. Either that, or they’ve convinced themselves that there’s little difference in practice between the public good and the good of the party.

    Spending-restriction bills tend to except media outlets, and the Dems – here’s my mind-reading coming in – probably think this exemption will give them an advantage, what with much of the major media being in their corner.

    1. I approve of this message!

      On this, one of my fave thought experiments is, we raise Hitler from the grave, give him a newer, younger face, but the basic ID, face-image, and message stays the same. We give him 3 trillion dollars to spend on TV ads, billboards, etc. Can he buy the election today? Hell no! History has spoken, and SURELY we have learned some lessons!

      If I am wrong about this, and Hitler COULD buy the election, then all hope is lost! But the fault would be with the PEOPLE, not the politician so much! And the problem SURE AS HELL would NOT be the money itself!

      Which brings to mind my favorite Ralph Waldo Emerson quote, which is fairly directly relevant:

      (Short version up top).
      ‘The State must follow, and not lead, the character and progress of the citizen.’

      Here is the full-blown quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson:
      ‘Republics abound in young civilians who believe that the laws make the city, that grave modifications of the policy and modes of living and employments of the population, that commerce, education and religion may be voted in or out; and that any measure, though it were absurd, may be imposed on a people if only you can get sufficient voices to make it a law. But the wise know that foolish legislation is a rope of sand which perishes in the twisting; that the State must follow and not lead the character and progress of the citizen; that the form of government which prevails is the expression of what cultivation exists in the population which permits it. The law is only a memorandum.’

    2. Ds just lack a conscience. There’s a idiom that says when you’re in a hole, stop digging. People who lack a conscience tend to spin a web of lies. They think they can lie their way out of their previous lies, or that they can dig their way out to the other side. They don’t realize they’re just making it harder and harder each time to get out of the hole.

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  5. following all of this moonrock carts i think i might have to conclude that they are up to something other than just to promote for the good of the public.

  6. Maybe the better question to ask is why did one billionaire (Trump) manage to win over a field of 17 candidates, and two other billionaires (Bloomberg, Steyer) fail so miserably?

    This is a new development in our on-going American Experiment, the highest economic class (billionaires) obtaining real political power. We don’t know how this phenomenon will play out. But I would submit it is a matter Americans should be thinking about. I have a feeling we will see more billionaires running for POTUS.

    1. why did one billionaire (Trump) manage to win over a field of 17 candidates, and two other billionaires (Bloomberg, Steyer) fail so miserably?

      You really don’t know??

      Trump has a strong personality and had a track record on TV, so he was known as a tough guy. Also he focused on a few issues that poll well. Bloomie and Steyer are mealymouthed milquetoasts. Money only gets you on the stage, after that you have to deliver.

      1. I think there are many things that lead to The Donald winning the Oval Office. Some are his doing, others are independent of anything he did.

        My bigger point is what is the implication to the Republic, now that this has happened (a billionaire winning office). Will we see billionaires run for office, and price out all other candidates? There are many aspects to consider and debate.

        1. We’re turning into a Soviet-style geezer-ocracy! Which old rich white geezers do YOU want for POTUS? Younger rich guys (Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk) are too busy making money, to run for office. So we’re stuck with ever-older geezers who have time and money to spare.

          If you have time to spare to read, this below is actually pretty good, about the above topics…

          Why Do Such Elderly People Run America? – The Atlanticwww.theatlantic.com › 2020/03 › why-are-these-people-so-freaking-old
          6 days ago – But old age runs deep in modern presidential politics. … This sounds like a universal formula: Older countries produce older politicians. ..end import…

      2. methinks that was a rhetorical question

    2. “why did one billionaire (Trump) manage to win over a field of 17 candidates”

      Because Russia helped him.

      #TrumpRussia
      #LibertariansForGettingToughWithRussia

    3. Trump didn’t buy his coverage. The media and press gave it to him for free. He didn’t actually spend that much of his own money and never did the sort of ad blitz that Steyer and Bloomberg tried. John Kerry is worth hundreds of millions of dollars, but he didn’t buy his nomination either.

  7. Not having social media accounts, and living in a non-super Tueday state, I saw few Bloomberg ads. However, the few I saw were anti-Trump as much as “Bloomberg” ads. So I see his alleged campaign as $570 million in totally unreported campaign contributions to the democratic party.
    On a related note, do the laid off staffers he publicly promised jobs through the entire campaign have standing to sue for unpaid wages?

  8. Koch / Reason libertarianism, at its core, strives to make life better for billionaires. So of course we encourage them to spend money to shape American politics according to their preferences. However it might be smarter for billionaires to fund other people’s campaigns instead of running for office themselves. This will become clear over the next few months as the richest Americans line up behind Joe Biden.

    #BillionairesKnowBest
    #VoteBidenToHelpBillionaires

  9. Many years ago the dominance of money could have had a bigger impact. Now technology makes information instant for comments, quotes and fact checking speeches and ads.
    The great equalizer.

  10. Of course money buys influence and overtime that influence accumulates. Where I live the big industries buy radio station shows and if you pay attention you can see exactly how they push certain issues this way or that way.

  11. Restrictions on spending impair a candidate’s ability to get his message across, just as direct restrictions on the use of telephones, video equipment, computers, or the internet would, even though those technologies are not speech either. – so true

  12. “The Bloomberg and Steyer Fiascoes Should Give Pause to Speech Restrictionists”.

    On reading that headline, my inner cynic said: “Should. But won’t.”

    1. Your inner cynic is likely correct. Most people just find “money in politics” to be icky, regardless of whether or not it has any significant influence.

  13. Speech restrictionists are like gun restrictionists: They say they want to curtail the right because of the harm it supposedly does, but that’s actually backwards: They assert the harm because they want an excuse to curtail the right.

    Actually, more and more the speech restrictionists are becoming open about their motivation: They want to silence speech because it persuades, and they simply define persuading somebody of something they disagree with as “corrupt”.

  14. We already had this lesson.

    Clinton outspent Trump 2:1, and had probably 10 times that amount in free help from the press.

    And despite being outspent by such a wide margin and having 90% negative coverage in the press against 75%+ positive coverage for his opponent, Trump managed to convince enough voters that he was the better choice.

    1. Trump would have the highest poll numbers in history if the media were actually objective. As it is, his numbers are decent co spidering he has almost the entire media on all platforms working as anti Trump activists.

      1. It’s hilarious that someone who advocates criminalizing Marxism also proposes that Trump’s less-than-stellar approval ratings are due to false consciousness. Don’t let the Obergruppenfuehrer find out!

  15. >>Yet Democrats are so obsessed with the supposedly corrupting impact of money in politics that they are ready to authorize such restrictions by fundamentally rewriting the law of free speech

    you neglect the obvious. (D) wants (R) money out of politics not just “money” and as evidenced by the past will hold only (R) to the free speech restrictions.

  16. They couldn’t buy victory, so they will have to keep buying the victors.

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