Opinion: Biden condemned large campaign contributions; then took more than Trump
As the dust kicked up by the November election settles, one thing is clear: The cost of campaigning in America continues to skyrocket. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the 2020 elections will be more expensive than 2016 and 2012 combined. While control of the Senate is up in the air, a significant portion of these political expenditures helped Democrats win the White House and maintain control of the House of Representatives.
That’s odd, since Democrats have long advocated for campaign finance reform to reduce the costs of elections. With that in mind, the question remains: Should we expect any meaningful legislation to curtail this political spending in years to come?
Don’t hold your breath. Democrats may talk big about campaign finance reform, but this election showed they’re all talk and no action.
Just 10 years ago, following the Supreme Court’s infamous Citizens United decision opening the door to unlimited corporate independent expenditures, President Barack Obama claimed the decision would result in “corporate and special interest takeovers of our elections” that would be “damaging to our democracy.”
In the years since, Democrats have increasingly made a show of rejecting corporate money. The 2020 DNC platform called for eliminating “all private financing from federal elections,” and President-elect Joe Biden made similar overtures, pushing for public matching funds for small-dollar donors and a constitutional amendment to “entirely eliminate private dollars from federal elections” — a move in step with his history of support for significant campaign finance reform.
Back in 2015, Biden stated that the No. 1 thing he would do as a lawmaker to “increase fairness, equity, [and] opportunity for the middle class” would be to “get private money out of the political process.”
So much for that sentiment. When it came to who had an advantage among the country’s “mega-donors” in 2020, Biden blew the doors off the Trump campaign. If the most prominent voices calling for reform are collecting this much money, it should throw cold water on the idea that any significant changes to the current campaign finance system are on the way. With such advantages, what incentives do Biden and the DNC have to do so?
In some ways, Team Biden did fulfill its vision, raking in over $368 million from individuals donating $200 or less. This is largely in line with the DNC’s edge in small-dollar donors over their GOP challengers, with platforms like ActBlue fueling billions of dollars in campaign cash to Democratic candidates nationwide through these donations. With this haul and existing rhetoric around money in politics, surely the Biden campaign would have tried to tap the brakes on its reliance on big-money donors in 2020. Right?
Wrong. Data from the Center for Responsive Politics indicates that Biden received more than $580 million from individual contributors giving more than $200, compared to President Trump’s $325 million.
While the Biden campaign has banged the campaign finance reform drum with one hand, sounding its support of small-dollar donors, with the other it has raised millions from mega-donors who have poured money into a joint fundraising committee between Biden and the DNC.
These donors have included some of the country's wealthiest individuals, particularly from the tech sector and entertainment world. Additionally, Wall Street and financial sector donors flipped for Biden this cycle as well. The list of influential Americans is so large, even progressives in the House are wary of the influence these individuals may have on the Biden administration.
And what about the much-maligned Super-Pacs and “dark money” groups? Biden won big here, too. These groups spent nearly $700 million in support of the DNC candidate, compared to $352 million for Trump. So much for gutting “private dollars from federal elections.”
So, what does this mean for campaign finance reform efforts called for by the Biden campaign and DNC? In all likelihood, it means these moves won’t happen in the short-term. With total spending on federal elections crossing the $14 billion mark this cycle, you’d think the calls on the incoming Biden administration to take action on campaign finance would be at a fever pitch.
Yet these calls have been few and far between. When it comes to getting money out of politics, the Biden administration will likely suffer from a lack of motivation.