Money may yet prevail in this year's presidential election, but the failure so far of big donors to propel candidates to the top of the heap has shown the limitations of even huge stockpiles of cash and put some critics of lax campaign finance laws on the defensive.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has collected more super-PAC money than any candidate, finished with less than 3% of the vote in Iowa, where his super PAC spent about $3,000 on television ads for every vote he won. Although he says he hopes for a "reset" in New Hampshire, Bush has lagged badly in polls leading up to Tuesday's primary there.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, another early favorite of the big-donor class, dropped out four months before the first ballots were cast.
Meanwhile, two candidates who rail against big money and declined to establish their own super PACs, Republican Donald Trump and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist running as a Democrat, finished near the top of their races.
The lesson, says Richard L. Hasen, a professor at UC Irvine and author of a new book on campaign spending, "Plutocrats United," is that money remains powerful, but not all powerful.
"The simplistic idea that money simply buys election outcomes is wrong," said Hasen. "Money can't buy you Jeb, but it is buying you other things," including influence at levels of government below the White House, such as Congress.
It has been more than five years since the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United and related rulings in lower courts dramatically reshaped the ability of corporations and interest groups to spend millions of dollars influencing elections. In the aftermath, huge new sums have flowed into the political system, much of it from donors whose identities remain hidden or obscured, with very few restrictions.
The presidential race had seemed to be lining up as a highly visible example of the system's excesses, with billionaires summoning candidates to public auditions and handing out checks to super PACs established before candidates even declared that they were running.
But as anti-establishment fervor has grown, many of those billionaires have seen their money wasted.
"Certainly, the cataclysmic arguments about super PACs, what was being said in 2010, has not come true," said Bradley Smith, former chair of the Federal Election Commission, who advocates loosening campaign finance rules. "What I think you're really seeing here, they're normal. They're citizens spending money. And some citizens are sending votes that way, and some are not."
Trump's prominence in the campaign is one reason that super-PAC money has had less impact than some people expected. His celebrity and wealth have allowed him to ignore many big super-PAC donors.
Like other candidates, Trump attended a December forum in Washington hosted by a group backed by Sheldon Adelson. But instead of attempting to woo the billionaire casino magnate, Trump told the assembled audience, "I don't want your money."
Rivals who attended the same event, including Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, had no qualms in seeking big checks, even as they have tried to win over Trump's anti-establishment voters. Both men depend heavily on super PACs to fund their advertising and other parts of their campaigns.
But even Trump may not be immune from the influence of big money. His effort to win Iowa was hampered by his unwillingness to spend his own money to build the sort of get-out-the-vote operation that greatly aided Cruz, who won. But Trump may also have been hurt by a late outpouring of money from an outside group, "Our Principles Pac," which formed Jan. 14 and spent at least $2.4 million on attacks just ahead of the caucuses, according to OpenSecrets.org.
TV and radio ads and mailers from the group drew attention to Trump's inconsistent record on conservative issues, including abortion, and his financial support for liberal candidates. That may have held down his vote among conservatives in Iowa. The super-PAC had to disclose its spending, but will not be required to disclose its donors until Feb. 20, nearly three weeks after the caucuses.
And there is virtual certainty that whoever emerges as the nominee in each party will depend heavily on super PACs in the general election. Even Trump would be hard-pressed to write a $1-billion check if he becomes the GOP nominee.
"We're just in spring training here," said Fred Wertheimer, a longtime critic of big-dollar donations who heads Democracy 21, a group that advocates greater restrictions on political money.
"When you get to the general election, one of these super PACs is going to win, and the donors of those super PACs are going to buy corrupting influence," he says.
Still, the campaign so far has complicated the debate in unforeseen ways.
Candidates have discovered some of the practical problems super PACs can pose. Walker learned that in his race, as he could not use the money raised by his PAC to pay staff and other operating costs. When he dropped out, his super PAC had money in the bank while his campaign account was in debt. Additionally, super PACs have to pay higher rates for television ads than candidates' direct campaign accounts, which are subject to stricter limits on individual contributions.
Some advocates, including Wertheimer, are frustrated with Sanders for his lack of policy details when it comes to changing the campaign-finance system he regularly derides and for the assistance he is getting from a super-PAC supported by a nurses union.
And one of the highest-profile liberal critics of big money is giving unexpected praise to Trump, for making "big money relatively controversial on the Republican side for the first time in the modern era."
"It produced a kind of anxiety among some of these other Republicans," said Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard professor who briefly ran for the Democratic nomination to protest the campaign-finance system. "They didn't want to be open to that kind of attack from Donald Trump."
Lessig said campaign finance must be seen as a bipartisan issue to force congressional action. He notes the wide gulf between Republican rhetoric this year and four years ago — when Mitt Romney, the GOP nominee and former Massachusetts governor, proclaimed that "corporations are people."
But Trump, who was uncharacteristically withdrawn this week after his second-place finish in Iowa, sounded uncertain about whether many voters care about his stance against big contributors.
"When they go into vote, I don't think they say 'I'm going to vote for Trump because he's self-funding and he's not going to be influenced by lobbies and special interests,'" he said during a news conference this week in New Hampshire.
"It's a very big element if you can have somebody that can actually self fund and not be influenced by bad decisions by people that are looking for themselves or looking for the company or country they represent," he said.
For more on Campaign 2016, follow @noahbierman
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