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Does campaign finance favor the wealthy?

by Susannah Kopecky, published

Do the rich really get an advantage in the typical political race? A recent editorial pointed to Tom Campbell's dropping out of the California gubernatorial race as a sign that California politics just costs too much and doesn't offer a level playing field. The editorial asserts that "the campaign finance system increasingly favors rich candidates" such as Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina who run in California. This also suggests that those who do not tow a strict party line and do not possess personal fortunes of their own face bleak prospects of winning. Where did the idea of strict campaign finance in CA come from, and why do some believe that such regulations truly favor the rich?

In state elections, contributors are limited in their contribution capacities, depending both on the type of contributor and the type of campaign/candidate to whom they donate money, according to the Office of the California Secretary of State . For example, an individual contributor can give up to $3,900 to a candidate for the state legislature, while they can give up to $25,900 to a candidate for governor. A small contributor committee may also donate no more than $25,900 to a gubernatorial candidate, while it may give up to $7,800 to a candidate running for the legislature (twice as much as a single contributor may donate). A small contributor committee may donate nearly twice as much to a campaign for an individual running for any state office, other than that of governor: an individual may donate up to $6,500 in this instance, while the small group may give up to $12,900. A political party has no limit on the amount of money it may raise and spend on campaigns for legislative candidates, various statewide candidates and gubernatorial candidates.

As we see, the larger the group, the more money it can spend on campaigns. This generally translates to: the more connected a person is to large groups and political parties, the more likely they are to raise money. If groups of individuals have the material wealth to contribute high or unrestricted sums to campaigns, it may be assumed that these are wealthy individuals, and thus, a successful campaign which spends heavily, will be able to do so as a result of the support of wealthy individuals.

Can campaign finance cut out corruption?

Perhaps, in an idealized world. In the real world, people find ways to go around the law. In the real world, wealthy individuals who form committees have fewer restrictions on their donations and many wealthy contributors who are a part of a political party have no restrictions on how much they can give. Therefore it is true to state that a candidate, who is neither wealthy nor tows a strict party line, will likely not be able to gain any competitive advantage in a typical California election, without the financial resources (for television advertising, speaking events, advertisements on the radio, in newspapers and in various media, etc.) to do so. Barring significant campaign finance reform, the system does, ironically, harm the low-to-middle class candidate who doesn’t have $10 million in the bank or the unending support of either major party apparatus.



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