Money Doesn’t Threaten Party Control; It Enhances It

Ryan Lizza has a really nice article out on some of the dangers awaiting Hillary Clinton in her efforts to become the Democratic presidential nominee in 2016. But I must disagree with this passage:

The 2016 Presidential primaries will be the first fought by Democrats since the Supreme Court opened the door for individuals to spend unlimited sums of money on an election. In 2012, those new rules almost cost Romney the Republican nomination, when nuisance candidates like Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, who in previous years would have never survived their early losses, were propped up by rich allies. Before 2012, it would have been difficult to find interest groups that might help fund someone like O’Malley, Webb, or Sanders. Now all it takes is a billionaire who cares about gun control, climate change, war, or inequality. [emphasis added]

Whether Romney was ever in real danger of losing the Republican nomination in 2012 is somewhat a matter of perspective. If you were following opinion polls, it looked like anyone’s game; pretty much every candidate was the front-runner at some point during that cycle. However, if you were following the things we know predict success in primaries — that is, insider endorsements — it was never really close. Insiders had settled on Romney early on and never abandoned him. The designation of people like Gingrich and Santorum as “zombie candidates” was an entirely apt one precisely because their candidacies were already dead. They were being reanimated by rich allies but never had a real shot at winning the Republican nomination, which is biased in favor of the living.

That’s not to say that post-Citizens United fundraising won’t have any effect on the 2016 nomination cycle. It probably will. But the vast majority of the new money being generated is already heavily aligned with party elites. Sheldon Adelson was the exception in 2012, not the rule. If party insiders have already coalesced around a candidate, the big money will tend to follow, rather than resist. Indeed, one of the biggest spending Democratic PACs from 2012 has already indicated its support for Hillary Clinton.

The 2016 cycle may well feature spending levels that make the 2012 presidential race look like an Iowa county supervisorial contest in comparison. But there’s little reason to think this money will tear apart the party system or undermine the insider candidates. Indeed, the opposite is likely true.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Seth Masket

Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.