Banking on a Victory

Kate Preziosi

On Tuesday, November 18, students and faculty came to Meyerhoff Auditorium in the Ho Science Center to engage in a discussion about campaign finance, a much-contested issue following this election season. Michael Malbin, director of the Campaign Finance Institute, delivered a speech titled “Money in the 2008 Elections: What Should Be the Goal of Campaign Finance Policy in a Liberal Democracy?”

Mr. Malbin’s remarks were largely a reaction to the idea that, given President-Elect Obama’s success with small donations, the campaign finance system should be abolished.

“I think this way of looking at the issue severely constrains the discussion,” he said before launching an explanation of the recent major developments in campaign finance.

The average cost of winning a seat in the House of Representatives is $1.3 million, and the cost in the Senate is nearly $6.5 million.

“If the incumbent doesn’t have to defend himself, the public doesn’t pay any attention,” Malbin said, before adding that “the lobbyists always pay attention.”

On the national level, most presidential candidates reject public funding in the primaries because the numbers are too low. But no candidate except Barack Obama has ever rejected public financing in a national election.

“This was the most amazing fundraising juggernaut in history, in this century at the very least,” Malbin said. He explained that it was strategically important for Obama to control his message, and under the campaign finance system he would have had to work with the Democratic Party in a much different way.

“He needed people to judge him as an individual and not a symbol,” said Malbin, before breaking down the dollar numbers that Obama raised, and where it was coming from. He received $300 million in contributions of $200 or less, which was more money that any other candidate raised in total.

“He was able to use the Internet and social networking to his advantage,” Malbin said, “but more importantly, his e-mail messages to supporters soliciting donations were interspersed with encouragement to attend events.”

Even though nearly half of Mr. Obama’s campaign contributions came in donations of $200 or less, an unprecedented feat, all of the candidates still needed to rely on special interests to get started and win that coveted name recognition.

“The reality of Obama can’t live up to the myth. You cannot assume that one charismatic leader and the Internet will rid the need for this system,” Malbin said. Without campaign finance, he noted, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush would not have been elected. In his opinion, the goals of the system should be to reduce corruption, promote candidate emergence, enhance competition and broaden citizen engagement. The Supreme Court currently only recognizes the need to reduce corruption as a justification for the campaign finance system.

“In the U.S., unlimited independent spending takes the right of rebellion and tries to tame it by using financial strength to overturn the system,” Malbin said. “There is no way to limit the spending of determined rich people. What we should be concerned about is fostering and extending citizen participation beyond voting. If self-government is the end, policy is a means to this end.”