the money primary

This is a politically neutral blog, and indeed my vote is still up for grabs. However, I’d reflect on the big political news of the week–the fundraising figures–as follows. First, I believe that Senator Obama has struck a chord by promising a different kind of relationship between citizens and the government. He doesn’t promise to solve problems (which is almost always impossible for governments to do), but he proposes to collaborate with the American people, who are in a serious mood and are capable of working constructively together. Most political “professionals” (reporters, consultants, and others) cannot understand the deep appeal of this message. It reshuffles the political deck.

Second, hundreds of thousands of Americans made small contributions, and that is evidence that social networking sites and other technologies have dispersed power somewhat, at least compared to 20 years ago. That’s a good thing.

Third, however, it is a great pity that we have a “money primary.” It’s actually a double shame. It’s obviously unfortunate that money counts so much–and despite the small contributions, the median donor is surely quite wealthy. It’s also unfortunate that reporters feel they must cover matters like fundraising so intensively. They do so because they know that candidates who raise unexpectedly large amounts of cash have (all else being equal) greater chances of winning. I often quote CNN’s political director, Mark Hannon, who said in 1996 that his network conducted daily polls because they “happen to be the most authoritative way to answer the most basic question about the election, which is who is going to win.” The same assumption explains why reporters cover fundraising. But who will win is not the most basic question–not for a citizen. The most basic question for a citizen is: How are we going to address problems? A subsidiary question is: Which candidate should I vote for to help address our problems? It’s irrelevant who is most likely to win–although the press sometimes makes it quixotic to vote for candidates who are behind in the horse race.

It’s worth imagining a democracy in which people had quick access to the names and employers of all political donors–so that they could hunt for influence and corruption–but reporters were so busy covering issues and citizen’s work that they didn’t bother to mention the fundraising totals.

One thought on “the money primary

  1. Nick Beaudrot

    The median donor to Democratic campaigns is probably middle class. John Edwards has reported that 80% of contributions are $100 or less. Barack Obama has reported 90% are that level.

    Still, large donors matter more. In 2000, Al Gore received 28% of his contributions from low-dollar contributors ($200 or less). It’s hard to estimate without the full report, but I think John Edwards currently gets around 30% from his $100 or less, and Obama as much as 40%. And this is in an era where high-dollar contributors can give twice as much as they could before McCain-Feingold. So contributions have been democratized a good bit, but the higher contribution limits have somewhat dampened the democratization (with the old $1000 limit, contributions under $200 might make up the majority of Barack Obama’s money).

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