After the Constitution was written in 1787, each member of Congress represented at most 30,000 people. If someone wanted to be considered for that election, he just announced his candidacy, and although there might be something of a campaign, there was no need for massive, expensive media initiatives to introduce the challenger to the voters. The voters already knew all about the challenger because, in a district as small as 30,000 people, almost everyone knew almost everyone.
To say the least, things have changed. It’s no longer possible for every member of Congress to represent just 30,000 people. If districts were that small, there would be 10,593 members of Congress. As far as I’m concerned, 435 is more than enough. I don’t want a Washington, D.C. that has over 10,000 more arrogant, unprincipled, and disconnected politicians.
This math occurred to me yesterday after the Supreme Court’s decision in McCutcheon v. FEC, which dealt another blow to America’s campaign finance regulations by lifting the limits on the quantity of capped donations one individual can make to multiple federal candidates. What does campaign finance have to do with the size of congressional districts in 1787? It’s simple: Campaigns are expensive because districts are big.
It is cheap to run for office in a congressional district of 30,000 constituents, but it’s expensive to run for Congress in a district of 700,000 – or for Senate in a state with California’s 38 million people; or for President in a nation of 317 million people – because the only way for candidates to communicate with that many people is with expense television commercials, radio advertisements, and direct mail campaigns. Want to send a letter to everyone in a congressional district? That will be $343,000. Want to send them a letter a month for 10 months? That’ll cost you over $3 million.
In light of the liberal hysteria over the McCutcheon decision, I’d like to offer three simple reality checks. The first is that we aren’t going back to 1787. We aren’t going back to tiny districts. And we aren’t going back to cheap campaigns. Campaigns are expensive because districts are big. Deal with it.
The second reality check is this: McCutcheon didn’t take away the limit on the amount of money an individual donor can give to a candidate in a federal election. That limit was $2,600 before McCutcheon. That limit is $2,600 after McCutcheon. The only thing McCutcheon changed was the quantity of candidates who could receive $2,600 contributions from a single donor. When Democrats like Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi act as though the apocalypse is upon us, just think of Chicken Little getting hit on the head with an acorn and then declaring, “The sky is falling!” Note to Mr. Reid and Ms. Pelosi: The sky isn’t falling, and neither are the individual limits on donations on federal candidates.
The third reality check is this: Campaign finance regulation isn’t better for Democrats than for Republicans. The pre-McCutcheon regime of campaign finance regulation didn’t help either party more than other, and the post-McCutcheon regime won’t help either party more than any other. There are plenty of big-money donors for both parties. In the 2012 presidential election, Obama raised just over a billion dollars, and Romney raised just under a billion. Among super-PAC donors, 49% of Democratic donors gave more than $1 million, while 42% of Republican donors gave more than $1 million.
There is, however, one group of politicians that is greatly helped by campaign finance regulations: incumbents. Campaign finance regulation is really, really good for incumbents. That’s because incumbents have a lot of built in advantages over challengers. Most importantly, incumbents have high name recognition.
Think about it for a second: What does campaign finance regulation do? It makes it harder to raise money. You have to find more donors. You have to attend more fundraisers. You have to spend more time on the phone begging people for money.
All of that is great news for incumbents for two reasons. First, a law that makes it harder to raise money is great news for incumbents because they already have a donor network. Challengers have a harder time finding donors, and campaign finance regulations make that task even more onerous.
Second, a law that makes it harder to raise money is great for incumbents, challengers need money more than incumbents do. They need money to pay for the political speech that introduces them to constituents – because this isn’t 1787 and districts are no longer the size of a small town – and they need money to pay for the political speech that tells voters about the flaws in incumbents’ records. Want to tell voters that the incumbent raised taxes? It costs money. Want to remind voters that the incumbent voted for Obamacare? It costs money. Want to make voters remember all the campaign promises the incumbent made and broke? It costs money. If challengers don’t have enough money to pay for all that expensive speech, the incumbents will coast to reelection on the basis of mere name recognition. They already win over 90% of elections.
Do we really want a campaign finance system that protects them even more?