“I will be the first president in modern history to be outspent in his re-election campaign,” Barack Obama predicted in an e-mail sent to supporters on June 26th, urging potential donors to pony up before the end of the month. Yesterday, the Obama campaign announced that it had raised seventy-one million dollars in June, thirty-five million dollars less than the Romney campaign’s hundred and six million. The saddest part of this news isn’t that the Obama campaign is likely to be outspent; it’s that the Obama campaign has no position on the problem of money in elections.
The campaign’s line—“do the math”—is that Romney donors write big checks while Obama supporters more or less pitch in what coins they can find in the kitchen coffee can. “Through the primaries, we raised almost three-quarters of our money from donors giving less than $1,000, while Mitt Romney’s campaign raised more than three-quarters of its money from individuals giving $1,000 or more.” It’s a reasonable point, but it sure doesn’t amount to a critique of the idea that whoever can raise the most money wins.
Campaigns used not to cost so much. George Washington ran unopposed; he didn’t spend a shilling. Before Andrew Jackson, no one even campaigned. Elections didn’t get to be pricey until about the middle of the nineteenth century, but, even then, the costs were different and consisted, in the main, of printing ballots with your name on them, and, not infrequently, paying voters to cast them. Before the Civil War, the going rate to buy a vote was between two-fifty and twenty bucks a head—cheap in San Francisco, costly in Connecticut.