On June 16, Donald Trump officially announced he would run for president, the first billionaire to seriously seek the office since Ross Perot. A lot has changed since 1992, including federal campaign finance law, which governs how presidential election funds are raised and spent. Strangely, although nearly three months have passed since Trump’s announcement, rhetoric about money in politics continues to focus elsewhere, concerned more with “Super PACs” than Trump. This is probably because no standard reform solution could adequately counter Trump’s candidacy. More pointedly, Trump’s candidacy requires recognition that rather than expanding the law we should do away with campaign contribution limits to candidates, one of the law’s key provisions.
Trump has two advantages no other candidate can easily match. The first is obvious—a humungous bank account. Trump likely has more disposable income than everyone else in the race combined, and without significant contributions no candidate can test the limits of his willingness to spend it. So far, Trump has put in nearly $2 million of personal funds to his campaign account. To catch up, his opponents must raise money within the current limits (such as $2,700 individual contributions) from hundreds of people, and that’s just to reach what Trump has already put in as easily as writing a check. Some might say this is call for a well-funded public financing system, but with the Republican field so packed with candidates (and more Democrats considering entry every day) it is hard to imagine how this would be feasible for presidential primaries. Reformers may also counter that Trump’s financial advantage is just a reason to restrict his ability to spend his personal wealth on his campaign. Leaving aside constitutional concerns, Trump’s other advantage would undermine this remedy, and so far it is proving even more powerful than his wealth—celebrity.
Celebrity has always confounded so-called campaign finance reform. Money raised and spent by politicians can be quantified, but no one can put an objective value on “earned media,” or press coverage a candidate does not have to pay for. This has usually benefited incumbent officeholders in the campaign finance regime, but is proving especially advantageous for Trump, whose celebrity comes from popular culture that is far broader than the political sphere. So, not only does Trump have practically limitless money to spend, he does not even have to spend it as much as other candidates since a cadre of reporters is always nearby eager to record his latest quip. Even restrictions on Trump spending his money could not address this popularity without new restrictions on television, radio and newspaper coverage. Many laws that meddle with campaign funding are already constitutionally dubious; to restrict journalism is a non-starter even for most reformers. Some other candidates, such as Bernie Sanders, are garnering more attention in part thanks to earned media, but they would have a much greater chance to compete if they could more feasibly raise the necessary money to take out more ads.
Lifting campaign limits entirely is the only way to provide a realistic counter for Trump’s unfair advantages. Certainly, the lifted limits would also affect Trump, allowing him to raise even more money on top of his billions. Nevertheless, lesser-known candidates without billions to spare could raise the money necessary to engage, and find out for themselves whether their ideas and personalities are electable, as Perot did (quite unsuccessfully) with half-hour paid TV segments in 1992. Reformers will gawk at this suggestion, but should rejoice: with larger contributions candidates could drastically reduce the time they spend fundraising and allow them to focus on the electorate or, if they are already in office, governing. Super-PACs would diminish significantly, since donors could instead give directly to candidates. Campaign finance law would still serve a purpose, for tracking and disclosing the large amounts of money raised and spent by campaigns, and voters could continue to decide whether a candidate is too beholden to a contributor or small group of contributors.
The little attention given to Trump from some reformers has actually included praise for his tacit support of campaign finance reform, disregarding that such rhetoric is blatantly self-serving. Federal campaign finance law does little more than secure Trump’s competitive advantage, one that can only be realistically assuaged by eliminating campaign contribution limits. This is hardly perfect, but it would be far fairer than the current system that is keeping campaigns crippled against Trump’s wealth and celebrity.