The remarks led to defensive answers from several other candidates.
Bernie Sanders similarly criticized the outsized impact of campaign financing during his Presidential campaigns in 2016 and 2020, as he refused Super PAC money.
"Unlike virtually every other campaign, we don't have a Super PAC which collects money from billionaires and corporations," Sanders tweeted in 2015.
Why does this critique resonate with many Americans? How much does money influence politicians? And what, if anything, can be done about it?
As the system currently stands, the limit on campaign spending is unlimited. The only maximum is how much an individual donor can contribute– $3,300 to a federal campaign. Super PACs, sizeable political action committees that donate to politicians' campaigns, have no limit to how much money they can raise and contribute to such projects.
A Supreme Court case in 2010, Citizen United v. Federal Election Commission, ruled that outside groups can spend unlimited amounts of money on campaigns. The decision made donations a protected form of political speech.
Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote for the majority decision, stated that the First Amendment protects this form of spending and cannot be considered a corrupt quid pro quo.
“The fact that a corporation, or any other speaker, is willing to spend money to try to persuade voters presupposes that the people have the ultimate influence over elected officials,” Kennedy wrote.
This decision helped lead to the state of politics today, where many elected officials are subject to a corrupt quid pro quo where they must vote in line with their donors' wishes to keep getting campaign donations.
After the decision, President Barack Obama said in a State of the Union address that the ruling would "open the floodgates for special interests—including foreign corporations—to spend without limit in our elections."
Campaigns are increasingly more expensive, leading to more reliance on special interests.
According to Open Secrets, an organization devoted to tracking money in politics, the 2020 election was far and away the most expensive in history, reaching “an unprecedented $14 billion… and twice as expensive as the previous presidential election cycle."
About 56.1% of campaign financing in the presidential race went towards media advertisements. The remaining money was for fundraising, campaign expenses, salaries, administrative expenses, strategies, research, and an unclassifiable category.
Joe Biden raised over $580 million in outside money, while Donald Trump raised over $313 million in outside cash.
According to Pew Research and a 2018 study, Americans overwhelmingly support laws to curb the influence of Super PAC money.
"There is widespread – and bipartisan – agreement that people who make large political donations should not have more political influence than others, but Americans largely don't see that as a description of the country today," the report reads.
Pew Research Center also reports that 77% of Americans believe there should be limits to the amount individuals and groups can spend on campaigns. 65% believe new laws could reduce money's role in politics effectively. Democrats were more likely than Republicans to report concerns over Super PAC contributions.
As the system currently operates, unless a candidate is independently wealthy and can largely self-fund their campaign, they will likely have to take money from special interest groups to have a realistic shot of winning an election.
Open Secrets also reports that a majority of members of the US Congress are millionaires. Those who are not must often put themselves in debt to millionaires to fund a campaign. Lobbyists and massive donors make many of the political decisions of our representatives, or they will remove funding in the next election cycle. Thus, the people's will remains unfulfilled—currently, only those capable of funding our politicians have their priorities met.
We must seek a more just system where you do not have to be either absorbently wealthy or funded through Super PACs to achieve political office.
According to the Harvard Carr Center for Human Rights, between 2010 and 2015, fewer than 200 households funded nearly 60% of all Super PAC money. Super PACs are the loophole in campaign finance laws that allow outsized influence from a few donors.
According to Pew Research, 90% of Americans believe it is important that major political donors do not have more influence than others, with three-quarters of the country saying it is “very important.” Those who give small contributions to political campaigns, mostly less than $250, are the most likely to reject the notion that people who provide substantial money to elected officials do not have more influence than others.
With no signs of campaign spending going anywhere but up, it is now more essential than ever to reign in the contributions of special interest money.
We should not rely on a small minority of donors to determine who can get elected in a democracy. When Americans show up to cast their ballot, they should feel confident that they are choosing candidates based on their merit rather than their ability to convince donors to lend them campaign contributions.
A study by the University of Maryland showed that 66% of Republicans, 70% of independents, and 85% of Democrats support a constitutional amendment to roll back the Citizen United decision. Passing an amendment is extremely difficult as it requires support from two-thirds of Congress and three-quarters of states.
Of course, this is unfortunately unlikely to happen anytime soon. Many elected officials benefit immensely from Super PAC support. They would almost assuredly lose their financial backing from the donor class if they signaled support for this amendment. It is highly improbable that donors will support any proposal limiting their overwhelming influence.
There is no reason to throw up our hands and accept the current situation; evidence indicates broad support for a constitutional amendment. In 2020, 47 Senators supported a revision, while 20 states signaled support.
It will be necessary for elected officials to continue to support this measure and gather support as the American public overwhelmingly supports efforts to reign in the effect of money in politics. There are many more ways to tackle campaign finance's broad impact, but overturning Citizens United would be a great start.
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