Political Campaigns: Crash Course Government and Politics #39
Articles,  Blog

Political Campaigns: Crash Course Government and Politics #39


Hi I’m Craig and this is Crash Course Government
and Politics. And today we’re going to try and untangle
the mess that is the American political campaign. One of the things about the American political
system that often confuses people who don’t live in America is the way that our politicians
run for office. There are two aspects in particular that stand out about American political campaigns:
their length and their expense. We’re going to look at both of these today and see that
they’re related but before we do we are going to answer a burning question: why do we need
political campaigns anyway? [Theme Music] If you ask one hundred people about the reason
why we have political campaigns, you’ll get well, not a hundred but at least more than
one answer. And you might work for Family Feud. Probably the best answer to this question
though, is that we have political campaigns to provide voters with information they need to choose
a candidate to represent them. So how do political campaigns provide information? And what is a political
campaign anyway? Let’s go to the Thought Bubble. A campaign is an organized drive on the part
of a candidate to get elected to an office. It’s also the way we refer to the organization
itself. For example, in 2012 we had the Obama campaign and the Romney campaign. And each
consisted of a campaign organization made up of thousands of staffers and volunteers
and all of their activities. Most campaigns are temporary, geared towards an election
although both parties do have permanent professional campaign organizations. At the top level are
the national committees, the DNC and the RNC. Can you guess what they stand for? These organizations coordinate all national
campaigns, especially those for President. Each house of congress has a Republican and
Democratic campaign committee. The individual Senate and Congressional committees are headed
up by sitting members of the Senate and the House, and because these committees give money
to candidates, their leaders are very popular. I find that I’m popular when I make it rain
at parties. Campaigns provide information in a number
of ways. The main thing they do is communicate with the public, usually through the media
which we’ll discuss in greater depth in future episodes. The main stage of political campaigns
is the organized event where candidates can present information about themselves and their
policies directly through voters and speeches. These are known as stump speeches, although
only rarely these days do candidates actually speak on stumps, they have podiums and stages
now. In addition to these events, candidates present
the information by appearing on the TV, in debates, at town meetings, and in “impromptu”
photo opportunities. They like to appear with military hardware, too, although sometimes this can
backfire, as in the case of Michael Dukakis in 1988. Campaigns can spread their messages through
direct mail, press releases, news coverage, and through advertisements, often on the TV,
which is like the internet, only less interactive and has a lot of real housewives on it. Thanks,
thought bubble. Nowadays, there are many more ways that candidates
can reach out to voters. One way is through email. If you’ve ever given money to a candidate
or a campaign, you can expect emails in ever-increasing numbers as election day approaches, and we
all love that. Candidates now take to Twitter to blast out information and individual candidates
and their campaigns often have Facebook pages. There are even campaign ads made specifically
for YouTube, although how their advertising algorithm works is beyond me. It’s weird to get a campaign ad
for the Michigan Senate if you don’t live in Michigan. One other way that campaigns communicate
information is through raising money. Of course, they need money to pay for all the campaign ribbons
and buttons and PA systems and folding chairs and tour buses and stump speeches and axes
to chop down trees so they have stumps to speak on. These things ain’t cheap. Even more expensive are advertisements on
the TV. A sitting president has an advantage here in that he can usually get on TV whenever
he wants and he’ll have a chance to clarify his positions in the State of the Union Address.
But even he has to spend money on ads. And raising money is another way to present
voters with information because campaign solicitations usually come with some policy piece attached
to them. Almost every solicitation you get will be somewhat targeted to one of your interests
and tell you, or try to tell you, where the candidate asking for your money stands on
that issue. So you may have gotten a campaign solicitation
and wondered, “Hey, why you need my money?” The unhelpful answer is that they need your
money because campaigns are expensive. But then you might ask, “why are they so expensive?”
Good question. Campaigns are expensive because they’re huge,
especially presidential campaigns; they need to reach 220 million people of voting age.
Another reason they’re expensive is because they’re super long. Democrat and Republican
candidates raise money, give speeches and create political action committees years before
the election. It’s ridiculous. I blame the eagle. Campaigns are also expensive because Americans
expect them to be personal and this takes time and money. We like to see our candidates
in person and have them show up in small towns in Iowa and New Hampshire, even though those states
don’t matter all that much in the grand electoral picture. Another reason campaigns are so expensive
is that they rely increasingly on the TV and other visual media that cost a lot of money
to produce. Gone are the days when William McKinley could sit on his porch in Ohio and
have reporters come to him. Nowadays, even when candidates get free exposure by appearing
on nightly comedy shows, like The Daily Show, it still costs the campaign in terms of time,
travel and probably wardrobe and makeup so that they can look as good as I do. No makeup.
Minimal wardrobe: no pants. Sorry, Stan. How expensive are campaigns anyway? Eh…very!
In the 2008 presidential campaign both candidates together spent three billion dollars. In 2012
the candidates spent about a billion dollars each, and outside groups spent a further four
billion. And congressional elections weren’t much cheaper,
except when you consider that there were a lot more of them. Combined, congressional
races in 2008 cost about one billion dollars. All the money that gets spent on campaigns
leads us inevitably to campaign finance rules, which were set up by Congress after 1970 and
refined by the courts. We have campaign finance legislation because
all that money pouring into campaigns sure looks like it raises the potential for corruption.
Whether or not an individual’s campaign contributions can sway a congressman’s vote is highly debatable
but it certainly gives the appearance of impropriety when a congressman who receives millions of
dollars from the oil industry then works hard to weaken regulations on oil companies so
that they can make more profit. Campaign contributions are not bribes, but
they sure look like them to lots of people. Recognizing that campaign contributions could
potentially influence the political process, congress passes the Federal Election Campaign
act of 1971. This was the first law that put limits on campaign spending and donations.
It was further refined by the McCain-Feingold Campaign Law in 2002, and by court decisions
that refined the rules for campaign spending and donations and provided a legal rationale
for these limits. Until recently, the most important case on
campaign finance was Buckley V Valleo. This case established the idea that limits on campaign
spending were problematic under the first amendment because limiting the amount someone
could spend on politics was basically limiting what that person could say about politics.
Freedom of speech, y’all! According to the rules, individuals were allowed
to donate up to $2500 per candidate and their was a total limit to the amount an individual
could give. Donations to a party committee, which because they don’t go to a specific candidate
and thus seem less like bribes, were limited to $28,500. Individual donors were also allowed to give
up to $5,000 to a political action committee, or PAC. But it gets more complicated. Individuals
and PACs are allowed to give unlimited funds to a 527 group, named after its designation
in the tax code, that focuses on issue advocacy. The most famous 527 group in recent political memory
is probably Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which spent more than 22 million dollars to raise awareness around
the issue of whether 2004 presidential candidate, and later Secretary of State John Kerry was
completely honest about his Vietnam War record. If this sounds like it was more of an organization
against the candidate himself, well you can see why the line between “issue advocacy” and support for a political campaign can be kind of blurry. Now here’s something important: these limits
are on contributions to candidates and campaigns, not on spending by candidates and campaigns.
What this means is that a candidate and their campaign can spend however much they raise.
So if a candidate running for office has one billion dollars, they can spend one billion trying to
win. There’s no concern about self-funded candidates bribing themselves, and you often see very rich people
spending a lot of their own money trying to win office. So Buckley Vs. Valleo set up the basic distinction
between campaign donations, which could be limited, and campaign spending, which couldn’t.
This distinction was undercut by the Supreme Court in the case of Citizens United Vs. the Federal
Election Commission in 2009. This reaffirmed the idea that money is the equivalent of speech and struck
down many of the limitations on campaign donations. The Citizens United decision cleared the way
for Super PACs. These organizations are allowed to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money
to promote a candidate or publicize a cause, but they may not directly contribute to a
candidate or coordinate with a campaign. In the 2012 election, there were over 500 registered
super PACs and 41 of them spent over half a million dollars. The largest seven had spent
over 256 million by the end of August, one of the reasons that the 2012 election was the
most expensive ever, clocking in at around 6 billion. Now this sounds like a lot of money, right?
It is. Gimme it. But a little context: the total spent on house and senate races was
around 3.6 billion dollars, which was less than half of what Americans spend annually
on potato chips. So when you look at it this way, the amount we spend on elections doesn’t
seem like so much, which may make us rethink the idea that money is corrupting American
politics. Or maybe not. Maybe potato chips are corrupting American politics. Certainly
corrupting my belly. American political campaigns are big and high
stakes and raise questions about the influence of money in politics that are tough to answer.
On the one hand, it does seem like there’s the potential for very rich people to have
a lot of influence on the elections. On the other hand, limiting a person’s ability to
register his or her preference of a candidate through spending on that candidate does seem
like a limitation on their political speech. One of the arguments for limits on campaign
contributions is that forcing candidates to raise money in small amounts from a large
number of donors will make them reach out to larger numbers of constituents, and appealing
to large numbers is the essence of Democracy. But it’s also time consuming for a politician
to reach out to all those potential donors and congressmen already spend a considerable
amount of time raising money when they should be legislating. And watching Real Housewives.
And eating Little Caesar’s. There’s a lot to do. But this is the system we have, and unless
congress passes a law limiting campaign expenditures, or shortening the campaign season, we can
expect campaigns to remain long and get more and more expensive. Thanks for watching, I’ll
see you next time. Crash Course Government and Politics is produced
in association with PBS Digital Studios. Support for Crash Course US Government comes from
Voqal. Voqal supports non-profits that use technology and media to advance social equity.
Learn more about their mission and initiatives at Voqal.org. Crash Course was made with the
help of all of these campaign financiers. Thanks for watching.

31 Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *