U.S. Election 2016: The Revenge of Retail Politics

Article by Flinders University PhD Candidate and former Washington Internship student, Jesse Barker Gale:

The Revenge of Retail Politics

Candidates are on their way to spending an astonishing $5 billion on the 2016 Presidential race. A sum larger than the Gross Domestic Products of 40 countries. So far, (according to this excellent NYTimes graphic) the candidates had raised almost $760 million before the first Caucus.

So, what does this money buy? If you’re Jeb! Bush, not much (each of his votes in Iowa came at a cost over $2800). The fundraising cycle is relentless. Much in the same way that victories in the early voting states signal momentum to carry one’s campaign through to the nominating conventions, having the ability to raise vast sums of money in rapid order is testament to the ability of the candidate to ‘sell’ their vision to voters. Herein lies part of the reason that Jeb! has performed so poorly in this cycle.

Although the 2010 Citizens United ruling removed the limits on corporate and union expenditures on electioneering, and ushered in a veritable flood of so-called ‘dark money’ contributions, an unexpected affect of the ruling was the way that it changed retail politics.

American politics is famously hands-on. Members of Congress spend huge amounts of time attending functions across their districts shaking hands, kissing babies, dispensing advice and homespun wisdom, all the while angling for endorsements and campaign contributions. Members of Congress, even seasoned veterans, are expected to spend anywhere between 2 and 4 hours per day calling campaign contributors to build their war chests for the next election. And that is just for an average campaign, members running in swing seats are likely to spend even more time raising money to keep their re-election chances alive.

In the 2016 election, almost half of the reported money (some $361 million) has come from donations to the so-called ‘super PACs’ (Political Action Committee) that can raise and spend unlimited sums of money for or against political candidates. Comparatively, these groups raised $15.4 million in the 2012 race and $0 in the 2008 race. Jeb Bush ($123.7 million), Hillary Clinton ($47.9 million), and Ted Cruz ($42.8 million) have been the biggest beneficiaries of these groups thus far in the 2016 race.

The case of Jeb Bush is the most interesting. Of all the candidates, Bush’s initial fundraising haul ($114 million in the first half of 2015, including money raised by super PACs supporting his campaign) was the largest, and cemented his status as the candidate-to-beat in the primary process. However, while Bush’s numbers were impressive, the breakdown of donors revealed a huge weakness for his campaign. Of the money donated to the Jeb 2016 campaign in the first half of 2016 ($11.4 million), only 3 percent of the donations were $200 or less.  Although the ‘3 percent’ figure may not seem particularly remarkable, it does indicate that from its earliest days, the Bush campaign was not particularly interested in securing the allegiance of smaller donors, aiming more for a ‘shock and awe’ campaign to unnerve the rest of the field.

Candidates who cannot win the support of major donors lack the ability to be competitive in the general election. Hence, why candidates seek the support of billionaire donors like David and Charles Koch, Sheldon Adelson, and Foster Friess. At the same time, candidates need to excite the base in order to get to the general election. The ultimate candidate is one that can tap into the deep fundraising networks without distancing themselves from the grassroots supporters. This is the principal problem with Jeb Bush’s campaign; he has almost no support from the rank-and-file donors of the Republican Party.

Jeb Bush’s campaign troubles bear a great deal of similarity to Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2008, in that he is trying to run a traditional campaign in a non-traditional environment. Similar to 2008 Clinton, Bush was the perceived frontrunner, the candidate with the largest ‘war chest’, and the general favourite of the establishment. In both cases, they badly underestimated their younger rivals. They were unfamiliar with the new political environment that they encountered – Obama outplayed Clinton in the social media stakes and captured a great deal of grassroots support, whereas Bush has been out of the political ‘game’ for 10 years and has to deal with the records of both his father and brother as well as his own political record. Finally, they both have had the problem of overexposure. By 2008, Clinton had served in the Senate for 8 years, and a further 8 years as First Lady. She had been in the public eye and had weathered the media storms surrounding the high profile failures and controversies of the Clinton Administrations. Bush, after an embarrassing loss in the 1994 Florida Gubernatorial election (which, had he won, would have put him in contention for the 2000 Presidential election), won in 1998 and served for 8 years. Bush largely dropped off the radar post-retirement, but the Bush name stayed active.

With his super PAC support, Bush still has enough money to see him through the first few primary states. However, relying on that big-donor money further isolates him from the rank-and-file donors that he desperately needs to court. The question is, how long until the same donors that have kept him in the race ask him to consider suspending his campaign. Brutal as it may seem, former Massachusetts Governor and failed Presidential candidate Michael Dukakis once noted, “Presidential campaigns are not for the faint of heart or mind.

Disclaimer:  this is the view of the author and Flinders University does not take responsibility for the accuracy or completeness of the material and does not accept responsibility for, or endorse the contact or condition of, any linked website.

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