At a time when campaign finance law is at risk of being abolished, how can we ensure that our elections continue to be free and fair for all Americans? The Obama campaign’s fundraising strategy presents one possible option.
On Monday, President Obama officially launched his reelection campaign. Rather than make the announcement through a high-profile speech, Obama went to new media, putting up a sleek, simple website that features a YouTube video of supporters and encourages visitors to post the link on their friends’ Facebook wall. The style of the announcement was a reflection of both the campaign’s grassroots focus, and the growing influence of Internet technologies on elections.
However, even as free social media sources become the principal means by which campaigns reach out to voters, traditional media and money are more important than ever. A major news story following the announcement was the projection that the Obama campaign would raise a billion dollars. In fact, the need to meet this unprecedented fundraising goal is likely why the campaign is starting now. The importance of cash is reflected on the sleek website, which currently doesn’t include any policy positions, but does have a full campaign store up and running. It even offers a free t-shirt to anyone who donates $30 (which doesn’t seem to be a much better deal than just buying the shirt from the campaign store).
However, in spite of this stockpiling of funds, Obama continues to be seen as a force for campaign finance reform. This is largely a result of his campaign’s success in labeling itself as funded by a mass of small dollar donors. This technique is one of the most promising means to keep elections funded in a fair and democratic matter. By building a campaign on millions of small donors, Obama has effectively extended the concept of “one person, one vote” to “one person, one donation.” Even if the Court tears away campaign finance law, we can preserve equality in elections if everyone is able to give a small contribution, just as everyone is able to cast a ballot. The candidates with the largest number of supporters will succeed, upholding the basic principle of democracy.
A potential problem with this idea is it assumes that people donate somewhat equally. Just as it would be undemocratic if you could only vote once but I could vote 1,000 times, it is undemocratic if you can only donate $100 but I can donate $100,000. However, three aspects of our donations system allow just that: self-funding, corporate donations, and the magnitude of the individual donation cap. Next week I’ll discuss each of these three obstacles to a democratic campaign financing system, and how we can overcome them.