Campaign finance reformers worry a lot about the influence of money in politics. But big money was not decisive this season. Jeb Bush had over $100 million in his campaign chest and associated Super PAC but went nowhere, at a cost of over $500 per voter. Ben Carson was well-funded and flopped. Over in the Democratic primary race, the less flush candidate came near to pulling off an upset against a powerful legacy candidate.
But even more importantly, this campaign season shows that celebrity can count for more than money. Donald Trump may be a billionaire, but he spent very little money up to this point compared to the other major candidates. What fueled his candidacy was celebrity. He had one of the most ubiquitous names in real estate for decades and one of the most watched reality shows on American television.
He was able to leverage that celebrity to secure vastly more free media exposure than any other candidate. With a savvy born of years in the New York media market, he knew exactly how to spin the Fourth Estate. The media was more than happy to return the favor. Trump makes great copy. And not only that, at least some in the largely liberal press corps were happy to see him split the Republican Party.
The more abstract point is that restricting money in campaigns, far from being a safeguard, increases the political power of celebrity.
Increased political returns to celebrity will not benefit the nation. Even in an age of ubiquitous info-tainment and Twitter accounts for all, celebrity remains harder to acquire than money. Enjoyed by the few, it is a greater axis of inequality than money. Moreover, there is even less reason to think that celebrity is correlated with political wisdom than money is, given that there is more randomness in the path to fame than to an earned fortune.
And now campaign finance restrictions make it harder for Republican candidates to defeat the celebrity front-runner, despite his manifest flaws as a general election candidate and prospective President. Because of campaign finance restrictions, his opponents cannot take quick, large donations for their campaigns from the many wealthy people who are, like many of the less wealthy, appalled by Trump. It will be very difficult to knock down Trump’s established brand and the free media he receives without the ability of the campaigns themselves to use paid advertising to expose his many defects. To be sure, such substantial expenditures are not a sufficient condition for success on the part of his opponents—the other candidates need to show more ability to take the fight to Trump than they have. But a lot of money is likely a necessary condition.
Thus, campaign finance restrictions are one of the reasons Trump may become the GOP nominee. Further restrictions of the kind that Democrats (and Trump) favor enhance even more celebrities’ ability to cross over to politics, even if they know nothing of policy and have substantial character flaws. We live in a celebrity culture and campaign finance limitations make politics more a part of it.