Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Campaign Finance: The Time to Reform Is Now

By Samantha KaplanPublished October 31, 2013

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The governor's race in Virginia has been heating up as Election Day nears, but the competition isn't the only thing reaching great heights"”campaign spending is as well. Terry McAuliffe is leading the race in campaign spending with a total of $14.9 million in funds, while competitor Ken Cuccinelli trails with $10 million. Campaign spending has been a hot topic in recent years"”especially following President Obama and Mitt Romney's decision to reject public funding for the presidential campaign. This rejection meant that the candidates were not subject to the limitations associated with public funding, and were able to raise significantly more funds that usual.
By Samantha Kaplan, Published 10/31/13


The governor's race in Virginia has been heating up as Election Day nears, but the competition isn't the only thing reaching great heights—campaign spending is as well.  Terry McAuliffe is leading the race in campaign spending with a total of $14.9 million in funds, while competitor Ken Cuccinelli trails with $10 million. Campaign spending has been a hot topic in recent years—especially following President Obama and Mitt Romney's decision to reject public funding for the presidential campaign. This rejection meant that the candidates were not subject to the limitations associated with public funding, and were able to raise significantly more funds that usual.

One of the most pertinent concerns with regards to campaign finance is its potential to facilitate unequal representation.  When looking at the campaign finance breakdown for the Virginia governor's race, one of the most shocking factors is the amount of money put up by the candidate personally.  Terry McAuliffe has raised $10.3 million himself so far, and Cuccinelli has put up a hefty $6.6 million as well. These numbers are concerning because they establish a remarkably high barrier to entry in the political world. Candidates have to be personally wealthy, or incredibly talented at fundraising, in order to even consider running for the house, senate, or governorship—let alone president. These high costs are huge deterrents to a number of intelligent, bright, and dynamic political hopefuls.

            Super PACs are another area of U.S. campaign finance that has room for reform. The campaign finance landscape was transformed in 2010 when the Supreme Court ruled that corporations, associations and labor unions should not have restricted independent expenditures. This ruling led to the creation of independent-expenditure only committees, more colloquially known in the media as Super PACs. These committees can raise funds from many different kinds of groups, and unlike traditional political action committees, can spend an unlimited amount on presidential campaigns as long as the money is spent independently of the candidate. Super PACs have morphed the political landscape into a monetary battlefield. This ruthlessness is seen most clearly in the intensely negative advertisements that come across the air. In the governor's race, a Texas Super PAC "Fight For Tomorrow"" is planning to air an advertisement against McAuliffe during a game of the World Series. Looking at past years, the average cost of this time slot is upwards of $300,000, a hefty sum to put up for such negativity.

            What should we take away from the trending increase in campaign spending?  We need reform now. The current landscape of campaign finance is ripe for corruption, and if it has not occurred already—we should fear for the future as polarization increases and partisanship becomes more heated. The corrupting potential of money has always been a concern in government, especially surrounding pork in large legislation. However, general campaign financing has a much easier solution. Let's consider adopting what states like Maine have done already—pure public financing.  Maine and Arizona have adopted a policy known as "Clean Money, Clean Elections," which allocates the same fixed amount of money to each candidate who runs. This method would be particularly feasible and reasonable to enable on a local level, where travel and TV advertisements are lower.  Policymakers should consider adopting a clean money policy for local and state elections in the future.