Financing US elections: To the highest bidder? | Americas| North and South American news impacting on Europe | DW | 19.01.2016
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Financing US elections: To the highest bidder?

With the US election campaign in full swing, candidates need all the financial backing they can get. A successful stab at the presidency can easily cost more than $1 billion, as Lars Gesing reports from Washington.

When Germans went to the polls during the country's 2013 parliamentary elections, the six major parties had spent a combined $62 million (57 million euros). A year earlier, the United States had voted for a new president and much of the makeup of its Congress. The price tag for that election - 100 times as much: $6.3 billion.

Unlike in Germany, where elections are largely government-funded, US elections are paid for directly by the people through donations. But what may sound like the purest form of democracy has long descended into a chaotic, borderline corrupt quagmire.

Campaign finance law in the United States prohibits any one person from donating more than $2,700 directly to one candidate's campaign per election. But the reality is that, thanks to a Supreme Court decision dating six years back, just about anyone can donate any amount of money to his or her favorite candidate.

During the 2012 presidential election, for example, Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson funneled close to $93 million to Republicans. And in the early days of the 2016 razzmatazz, billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch pledged to invest almost $900 million to get a Republican elected president next.

photomontage of two men

Cooking up a financial storm

Kochs cash in

But when two successful businessmen spend close to $1 billion to help someone become the next most powerful person on the planet, why would they do that - if not for favors?

"The Supreme Court has said that in order to allow restrictions on political spending, corruption has to be quid pro quo," Douglas Keith of the Money in Politics program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University told DW. "The court has said ingratiation and access are not corruption. In fact, they are essential elements of a democracy, whether we like it or not."

The landmark decision in US campaign finance law came in 2010, a case now widely known as Citizens United. In a narrow 5-4 decision, the justices made it clear that as long as the political contributions from an individual or an entity didn't go directly to a candidate - hence no possible argument of a quid-pro-quo exchange - the government should not cap such spending.

The court had taken the sanctity of the constitutional free speech amendment to new extremes. Money equals speech, no matter the amount. With that, the floodgates were open.

Super PAC-men

It didn't take long for savvy campaign strategists to launch super PACs, political action committees that could take unlimited contributions. The crux: They would officially not be allowed to coordinate with the candidate. The solution: Staff them with former campaign aides to assure a common goal, and you are in a legal gray zone haven.

Some groups took it even one step farther: Unlike super PACs, tax-exempt non-profits and social welfare groups working toward progressive or conservative goals don't even have to disclose their donors, as long as the group's main purpose isn't electoral politicking. The concept of such untraceable dark money runs contrary to even the Supreme Court's belief that "sunlight is the best disinfectant."

"When people give $30 to Bernie Sanders or Ted Cruz's campaign, that is a contribution of citizens trying to advance democracy and participate in the system," Robert McChesney, author of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America, told DW. "If you are a candidate dependent on large gifts of money from a handful of people, you would be beholden to them."

Politics, McChesney argued, had become a game for only the richest who further cement their status through political donations.

But why does it take that much money to run for office to begin with?

Mo money, mo problems?

Post World War II, the advent of television became a major political marketing force. While German parties get complimentary TV advertising time, in the free-market-first American society, broadcast corporations quickly realized the inherent commercial potential. Since then, the bulk of campaign funds have gone toward buying expensive ad time on TV, making media corporations complicit in the bloated-up money system.

man speaking at podium discussion AP Photo/Mic Smith

He doesn't want your money

But in 2016, there are two household names who are notably refraining from the big-money campaign game: Republican firebrand and real estate mogul Donald Trump so far has self-financed his once long-shot bid for the Oval Office. And Democrat Bernie Sanders, a socialist-leaning longtime independent US senator, has flat-out declared war on money in politics. It is the absurdity of the system that Sanders still couldn't stop a handful of outside groups to collect funds on his behalf.

"The decisions by these candidates to keep themselves insulated from the influence of large donors is one element of their appeal to voters and why they are doing so well in the polls," Viveca Novak from the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-profit watchdog tracking money in US politics, told DW.

More than three-quarters of Americans have told pollsters that the Citizens United ruling should be overturned. And yet, the genie won't get back in the bottle quite as easily.

"In terms of limiting the outside spending, it is going to be very difficult without a change at the Supreme Court," the Brennan Center's Douglas Keith said. "[But] the next president of the United States almost without question will appoint a new Supreme Court justice, and probably multiple."

Until then, though, the 2016 presidential election will essentially break down to a high-stakes game of monopoly.

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