The Koch Brothers are the Mr. & Mrs. Howell of the 2016 Presidential Race

There was an odd turn of events last week in the plutocrat primary, the competition among presidential candidates to win the backing of billionaire donors. David Koch signaled that he and his brother Charles have taken a liking to Gov. Scott Walker’s presidential candidacy. It was a quasi-endorsement, with Koch basically saying that he thought Walker would win the primary. But then the Kochs walked that endorsement back, saying that,

the political organizations they oversee — which include Americans for Prosperity, a grass-roots organization, and Freedom Partners, a donor trade group with an affiliated “super PAC” — would not intervene in the Republican primary process on behalf of a single candidate.

So while the Kochs may signal a preference for one candidate over the other, the one thing they bring to the table — hundreds of millions of dollars — will not be used in the nomination process. That money, rather, will be devoted to the general election, where the Kochs will undoubtedly spend it to aid whomever the Republicans nominate against whomever the Democrats nominate. (Is there any possible Republican nominee whom the Kochs would not vastly prefer to Hillary Clinton?)

To some extent, this is understandable; the Kochs would rather not provoke a war within the party, and it is potentially dangerous for them to back one Republican but have another win the nomination. That would undermine their influence and access should that Republican become president. But it’s also an odd decision in that their money would be far more effective in the primaries. Their ability to determine the outcome of presidential elections has not been demonstrated.

What makes this all the more odd is the deference shown by presidential candidates to the Kochs. Candidates are going out of their way to woo the Kochs, and the larger conservative media establishment speaks with considerable reverence for them, yet the Kochs are not going to be helping out in the nomination phase and the nominee will undoubtedly get their support.

This is where the Kochs remind me of Thurston and Lovey Howell, the millionaire castaways of “Gilligan’s Island.” The Howells’ millionaire status rested on assets that they did not have on the island, and any money they brought with them was useless in a society of seven people that did not operate on a cash basis. And the Howells didn’t really contribute anything to the society, the way the Skipper provided leadership or the Professor offered labor-saving inventions. In theory, the Howells could have rewarded people once they were rescued, but after a few years there, surely the castaways had given up any serious hope for a rescue. People nonetheless deferred to the Howells — they were the only castaways addressed as Mr. and Mrs., and the others regularly helped them out with chores in exchange for basically nothing.

This is suggestive of some of the limits of campaign finance reform. The concern is always that politicians will defer to the wealthy because the wealthy can spend a lot in elections. But take the money away, and people still defer to the wealthy simply because they are wealthy. Even the most sincere reform will not undermine the built in caste system.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Seth Masket

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