In a post-Citizens United America, the amount of money spent on U.S. elections is staggering, making many Americans feel disillusioned with the electoral process. Though the perception of corruption and unfair influence from large campaign donations is rampant, this election cycle has proved that campaign contributions can only get a candidate so far. The fall of big-donor picks like Jeb Bush and the success of grass roots-supported candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders both indicate that, despite how hard certain individuals may try, U.S. elections cannot be bought.
While the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC did not change the limit for donations directly to campaigns, it did allow for the creation of super Political Action Committees (PACs): organisations that can accept unlimited amounts of money from individuals and corporations. This cycle is promising to be the most expensive presidential election yet, with donors contributing over $625 million to PACs already (a figure that will likely ultimately outstrip the $828 million raised by PACs during the 2012 cycle). In his majority opinion for the Court, Justice Kennedy argued, “independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption… the appearance of influence or access [coming from unlimited corporate spending] will not cause the electorate to lose faith in our democracy.” This idea that unlimited campaign spending would not give rise to corruption, or a corrosive appearance of corruption, has proved to be utterly false: in 2012, 65% of Americans surveyed said that they trust government less because big donors have more influence than average voters, and 26% of respondents said that they were less likely to vote as a result of super PACs as they felt their vote would not hold any influence.
And yet, in an election that is usurping all established expectations, one of the most surprising elements of this cycle is the lack of influence of big donors on who is actually succeeding in state contests. On the Republican side of the race, Jeb Bush was the top donor pick for the party’s nominee: those PACs supporting him raised over $124 million before he dropped out in February after abysmal performances in the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, and a whole host of other failed campaigns for the Republican nomination raised more money with super-PACs than current frontrunner Donald Trump, whose campaign is funded by coffers of personal wealth and individual donations. On the democratic side, Bernie Sanders has managed to seriously challenge Hillary Clinton with a campaign funded entirely by individual donations and grass roots support. Sanders has constantly criticized Clinton for her use of a PAC, citing donations she has accepted from Wall Street and various other industries as an indication that Clinton is influenced by these special interests rather than potential voters. However, when asked in Thursday’s democratic debate to cite a specific instance when – as a senator – Clinton favored banks, Sanders was unable to answer. Nonetheless, both Sanders and Trump have made a point of not being bought, and have set an important precedent and a plausible path for other national politicians to reject super-PACs in the future. If more candidates were to opt for this choice, it could restore some of the faith many voters have lost in the democratic process since Citizens United, and reduce widespread perceptions of corruption.
The success of Sanders and Trump, coupled with the utter failure of candidates like Jeb Bush, all indicate that national U.S. elections cannot be bought. While it is enormously expensive to campaign for president – fifty states and over six months of primary campaigning take a financial toll – the question of whom is endorsed by the 50 mega-donors who have raised close to half of that $625 million does not determine who will win the election. At least on the federal level, where media coverage of the candidates is constant and readily available, it appears that the influence of PACs has been unable to capture the voters, who still hold the power over who represents them in their democracy.