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Following the Money Trail


One of the biggest mistakes a voter can make is to project their own values onto a political candidate.  The glittering generalities of the candidates, unfortunately, make such projections extremely common.  Voters hear candidates making vague claims in support of the middle class or workers, and assume that those candidates retain a strong commitment to redistributive justice.  Barack Obama has perhaps been the most successful in using glittering generalities, with his continued commitment to the “audacity of hope” and “change we can believe in,” as prime examples.  Such slogans may make for nice sound bites, but are of little substantive value in identifying Obama’s actual positions on key issues. 

 

Obama’s attempts to appeal to working Americans offer more of the same ambiguity.  In one speech from this February, he promised: “as our economy changes, let’s be the generation that ensures our nation’s workers are sharing in our prosperity. Let’s protect the hard-earned benefits their companies have promised. Let’s make it possible for hardworking Americans to save for retirement. And let’s allow our unions and their organizers to lift up this country’s middle-class again.”  Such claims, although often cited by conservative media pundits as “proof” of Democratic Party “socialism,” provide little basis for assessing how the party will enact progressive change.

 

While rhetorical support for American workers and unions is very common amongst Demorats, how does their rhetoric reflect the reality of campaign politics in America today?  A review of the major economic forces behind American elections is sobering, if for no other reason than because of the dramatic difference between campaign rhetoric and reality. 

 

Scholars have long identified the increased role of money in the campaign process.  The 2008 election has proven no different, as the combined funds raised by all of the candidates running in House, Senate, and Presidential races totals an astounding $1.1 billion, as of January 2008 –  $347 million raised in the House, $154 million in the Senate, and $583 million for the Presidency.  The Democratic, rather than the Republican Party, has proven the most savy in raising massive sums, as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama place first and second place in terms of the most money raised (at $116 million and $102 million respectively).  Republicans’ funds are less in comparison, with frontrunner John McCain raising a total of $41 million, and Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, and Mike Huckabee respectively at $88.5 million, $60.9 million, and $9 million.

 

Democrats often claim that they will fight for American workers, against the special interests of corporate American and white collar elites.  Hillary Clinton has proclaimed herself a champion of blue collar interests, although her track record indicates otherwise. 

 

As a member of the Wal-Mart board of directors from 1986-1992, she presided over a company that is notorious for its anti-worker and anti-union initiatives.  A recent report from ABC News highlights Clinton’s continued refusal to speak up in favor of worker interests at Wal-Mart board meetings; one former company board members admits he has “no recollection of Clinton defending unions during more than 20 board meetings held in private.” 

 

Democrats’ claims that they are the party of the common worker would seem a lot more plausible if they were not so heavily reliant on corporate sponsorship.  As of January, Clinton received 56% of her funds from business groups and individuals, as opposed to only 11% from labor, while only 25% of Obama’s funds came from business, none came from labor.  Obama’s relations with labor interests rival those of Republicans, as McCain Romney, Giuliani, Huckabee all similarly accepted between 0-1% of their funds from union members and labor organizations.  Out of the seven major candidates in the 2008 Presidential race (Clinton, Obama, Edwards, McCain, Huckabee, Romney, and Giuliani), only Edwards received more money from labor than business (accepting 4% and 52% of his funds from business and labor respectively).  It hardly seems coincidental, considering his campaign funding sources, that Edwards was the most populist, critical candidate of corporate America.  

 

While Edwards was promoting a progressive policy platform, other leading Democrats were busy courting major American industries.  Hillary Clinton is consistently a top recipient of money from a wide variety of industries, ranking number one amongst both Democrats and Republicans in funds received from computer and Internet companies, commercial banks, health professionals, health services and HMOs, hospitals and nursing homes, lawyers and law firms, hedge funds, miscellaneous health care interests, pharmaceutical and health product producers, real estate groups, securities and investment interests, and television, movie, and music companies.  Barack Obama is consistently the second highest recipient of contributions from all these industries, with the exceptions of hedge funds, real estate, and telephone interests.

 

On a bi-partisan level, business continues to dominate the campaign contribution process.  In recent years, the split between business and labor donations has remained rather stable, although extremely lopsided.  Business contributions have ranged between 72% and 75% of all contributions received by candidates during the 2000 through 2008 elections, while labor donations accounted for only between 3% and 7% of all donations.  In an electoral system more and more reliant on mass amounts of funding, business interests are poised to strengthen their already privileged position.  Successful political leaders have learned that they need to court business interests if they are to succeed in Congressional races with increasingly exorbitant entrance prices.  While the typical winner in a Senate race raised an average of $5.2 million in 1998, that number had skyrocketed to $9.6 million in 2006 – an 85% increase.  Similarly, the typical winner in a House race, while raising an average of $650,000 in 1998, needed to raise $1.2 million by 2006 (also an 85% increase).

 

Scholarly studies of the media identify candidates’ images, personalities, and horse-race politics, rather than exploration of substantive policy issues, as at the heart of the mediated electoral contest.  The Wall Street Journal recently conceded this point in time for the “Super Tuesday” primaries, with its headline: “Issues Recede in 2008 Contest As Voters Focus on Character.”  In their book Covering Campaigns, Peter Clarke and Susan Evans highlight journalists’ lack of interest in the major issues in their coverage of Congressional elections.  Similarly, Political Scientist Thomas Patterson argues that election “coverage is framed within the context of a competitive game rather than being concerned with basic issues of policy.”  As election coverage degenerates into a popularity contest between different personalities, more important substantive questions about the role of money in national elections remain unexplored. 

 

 

Note: all of the statistics in this report are publicly available through the Center for Responsive Politics, at www.opensecrets.org

  

Anthony DiMaggio has taught Middle East Politics and American Government at Illinois State University.  His book, Mass Media, Mass Propaganda: Understanding the News in the “War on Terror,” is due out in April. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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