Sunday 25 September 2016

Money talks - and in US presidential race, billions of dollars shout loudest

Published 26/05/2015 | 02:30

Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, march in a Memorial Day Parade in their hometown of Chappaqua, New York, where almost a thousand onlookers crowded the parade route. Photo: The Journal News via AP
Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, march in a Memorial Day Parade in their hometown of Chappaqua, New York, where almost a thousand onlookers crowded the parade route. Photo: The Journal News via AP

Political campaigns are expensive everywhere. However, in America increasingly, we are seeing enormously large amounts of money being spent on electioneering, even before candidates are selected. Money equals voice, voice leads to votes, and votes mean power. There once was a time when democracy was driven by people and not dollars, but that day has long passed.

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The 2016 American presidential campaign is set to reach dizzying new heights in terms of campaign spending, with reports that Hillary Clinton intends to raise a staggering $2.5bn (€2.27bn) to run her upcoming selection and election campaign. This represents a 100 percent increase on the cost of Barack Obama's campaign in 2012. Concern that ideologies are being replaced by donations are well founded. The idea that political policies are developed and determined by corporate interests is no longer a bogeyman tale. In the USA it is the reality. For candidates, the race is no longer about garnering support, it is about gathering green-backs. Every American election brings with it new ways for the super-rich to donate. With more restrictions being removed with each plebiscite, America is now virtually in a situation where there are simply no limits on how much money any individual can give to a candidate.

What has led to this free-for-all? More importantly, where is it leading America, if those with the most money can literally pay for a ticket to the White House?

In 2010, the American Supreme Court made a now infamous "Citizens United" decision. It related to a conservative lobbying group who made documentaries and advertisements against their political opponents. Essentially, the Supreme Court ruling stated that independent groupings such as Citizens United should be considered absolutely separate from the candidate or the campaign that they support. In doing so, it allowed very wealthy individuals and corporations a circuitous route to actively support their chosen candidates in a substantial financial way without having to endure the rigours of normal election parameters

The suggestion that such groups are in any way independent of the candidates that they support is ludicrous in the extreme - it is a gargantuan exercise in political denial.

Furthermore, the changes greatly undermined a system whereby average Americans could make small contributions to support preferred candidates and opened the floodgates for special interest groups. The decision changed the shape of American politics forever. It may yet prove to be the death knell for democracy as we now know it in the USA.

This ruling was also the genesis for the establishment of supposedly independent political action committees that can accept large donations from wealthy individuals and corporations. Whilst those donation must be disclosed, they are not legally considered a part of the candidate's campaign in terms of election funding but a sort of 'satellite slush fund' where the real money goes. These committees have become known as 'Super PACs' and they work alongside potential candidates to take in money, and to spend it.

If you are an aspiring presidential candidate and you don't have one, then you are not at the races, literally. You will also need at least one billionaire in your kit bag. Millionaires are so 1990s when it comes to funding an American election campaign, it's billions that count now.

The PAC committees, together with a billionaire or two, can literally determine who wins the race to the White House. Clinton's super PAC is called 'Priorities USA Action' and it is attempting to raise as much as $300m in the 2016 cycle - impressive targets that are designed to inflict fear in other potential Democrat candidates, and a prime example of the political chutzpah of the Clintons.

Even with all of Hillary Clinton's impressive financial followers, there are fears about their ability to compete with Republican counterparts who boast hundreds of mega-wealthy contributors. Her first campaign finance report, due in July, will benchmark her against Jeb Bush, who is expected to raise a jarring $100m in just the first three months of his unofficial campaign.

Ironically, the way that she will secure victory may have nothing to do with money or with economic policies at all. Her real political challenge is to get people to vote for her. Not because she is the Democratic candidate, but because she is a woman. Just like Obama, she only has one unique selling point to lift her above the other candidates. In all likelihood, she will endeavour to get those voters the very same way that Obama did: she will buy them with a slick and sophisticated media campaign. In that campaign she needs to be a woman to the electorate, but she will need to be a man to her potential backers - someone who is capable of bringing home the corporate bacon while also being able to mix it with the big boys on Capitol Hill.

The kaleidoscope of colour which adorned our lamp posts in Ireland in the last three weeks during the referendum on same-sex marriage is reminiscent of a more innocent age of electioneering.

Thankfully, we are still a world away from the political spin machine of American elections. There, voters are bombarded with messages morning, noon and night in a veritable sensory overload.

Given the changing nature of media and how people are sourcing information, either subconsciously or consciously, political communications are now approached with scientific research that would rival a rocket launch from the space centre at Cape Canaveral.

To have a shot, candidates literally need billions. House of Cards? House of Cash, more like.

Irish Independent

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