Since the Citizens United ruling, many progressives have begun to rally around the idea of campaign finance reform in a new push to get big money out of politics.
By putting such a significant emphasis on reforming the system, some Democrats risk leaving millions of dollars on the table in their fight to defeat Donald Trump in 2020. If Democrats are serious about defeating Trump, they’ll need every dollar they can raise. It also sets a dangerous precedent that down-ballot campaigns will likely try to emulate.
As a Democratic fundraiser, I have seen firsthand the power of money in elections. I fully support campaign finance reform, but I am pessimistic that anything meaningful can happen to curb the flow of dark money into our elections anytime soon.
Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have made campaign finance reform centerpieces of their campaigns. In 2016 Sanders made constant reference to that his average contribution was $27. Not to be outdone, Warren refuses contributions from PACs, lobbyists, corporate executives, and has sworn-off the big-dollar fundraisers and bundlers that have become commonplace on national campaigns, even she didn't abide by these stringent standards when running for the Senate.
Sanders and Warren have both been very successful in building out their low-dollar fundraising programs raising over a combined more than $130 million for their campaigns. While I salute their commitments to running campaigns consistent with their beliefs, I believe it ultimately weakens them, should either become the presidential nominee.
Whoever wins the Democratic nomination must be prepared for the constant attacks from the Trump campaign, and the millions of dollars Republicans have stockpiled over the last four years preparing for the 2020 election.
Throughout the primary, there has been a great deal of discussion about the idea of viability. Some have accused the idea of viability as being sexist, racist, or a tool to promote the political center. The fact is that viability must be an essential factor when picking the Democratic nominee. Sanders and Warren will have weaker campaigns because of their fundraising tactics in a race against Trump. Sanders and Warren have set records raising money from their low-dollar base, but each risk leaving millions of dollars on the table in a general election.
No one faulted President Obama for raising $186 million from more than 750 bundlers in his reelection campaign. In 2018, while many Democratic congressional candidates where swearing-off corporate PAC money and bemoaning dark money groups, House Majority PAC spent over $72 million in IE campaigns playing a pivotal role in creating a new Democratic majority.
It’s also likely that these tactics could have some unintended consequences for races down-ballot. In 2018, we saw many successful Democratic congressional candidates refuse corporate PAC money. These pledges likely had little to no-impact in an election when running as a challenger. Corporate PACs tend to support incumbents. It’s rare that they even consider supporting a challenger.
There have already been multiple cases of newly elected members of Congress trying to skirt their pledges. Now, as incumbents, the corporate PACs are ready to support their reelection campaigns. While still refusing corporate PAC money directly, these new members find themselves directly soliciting corporate lobbyists. They also rely on contributions from party leadership and other member's leadership PACs that are funded by corporate PAC contributions.
Candidates also risk putting their foot in their mouthes by opening fundraising events to the media. Fundraising events our environments where candidates feel exceptionally safe, and would say things they would never say to voters.
Some of the biggest political-blunders in recent memory have come at large dollar fundraisers. It was at a fundraiser in Florida in 2012 that Mitt Romney famously said, "47% of American's pay no income tax." In 2008 Obama told a room full of donors in San Francisco that "they (midwest voters) get bitter, they cling to guns or religion…as a way to explain their frustrations." And the infamous "basket of deplorables" comment came at a Hillary Clinton Fundraiser in New York City.
Given the current state of journalism and constant budget cuts being made to newsrooms nationwide, it’s unlikely that reporters will be swarming to cover political fundraisers any time soon.
What’s more likely, and frankly more dangerous to campaigns, are so-called "citizen-journalists" infiltrating fundraisers pretending to be accredited journalists, or quietly just sneaking in and recording the candidate's remarks or even their private conversations with donors.
This election is too important and should not be a purity test for the progressive base of the Democratic Party. When the primary finally ends, it’ll be the time to rally around the nominee and help them raise every dollar they can to defeat Donald J. Trump in 2020. The stakes are too high.
Nick Daggers is a co-founding partner of the 1833 Group, a Chicago-based Democratic political consulting firm focusing on fundraising. He has over fifteen years of fundraising experience working for candidates running from local office to the U.S. Senate.