Half a century ago, journalist Joe McGinniss authored The Selling of the President, a brilliant exposé about the unabashed marketing of successful 1968 presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon. The image on the book jacket perhaps said it all: the candidate’s smiling face emblazoned on a pack of cigarettes.
The extent of the shameless packaging of a national politician, indeed, a former vice president running for the White House, was a revelation to most Americans. It reflected a much darker view of the American presidential election process than had been portrayed in Theodore H. White’s iconic series of books, The Making of the President.
How quaint that innocence lost appears today. U.S. presidential elections have become garish media spectacles. It is a bazaar of candidates, consultants, pundits, and assorted hucksters that lasts a full two years—half the length of an elected president’s term in office. Every four years, the American people endure by far the longest and most expensive election of any nation in the world—until the next one. The 2016 race for the White House is the wildest, most expensive money and media circus ever.
The next president, aided by thousands of paid and unpaid staffers, consultants, volunteers, and incessant expensive advertisements, will have raised and spent an unprecedented sum in the neighborhood of $1 billion. Most of that money comes from the very wealthiest Americans, a tiny percentage of the overall population. In January 2015, the conservative Republican billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch of Koch Industries and their political allies announced their intention to spend an astonishing $889 million in the 2016 presidential and congressional elections. That is more than twice what the Koch network spent in 2012; it is about equal to the election spending of the Republican and Democratic parties combined.
According to the New York Times, in the first months of the 2016 presidential campaign cycle, 158 families and companies they own or control contributed $176 million to candidates in both major parties. “Not since before Watergate have so few people and businesses provided so much early money in a campaign,” the Times reported. Most of this money was delivered through channels that are now legal thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision in 2010 that enables unlimited spending in support of campaigns and other political causes by corporations and nonprofits alike.
The $176 million represented nearly half of all of the “early money” raised in the 2016 presidential election campaign. These donors, the Times noted, “are overwhelmingly white, rich, older and male, in a nation that is being remade by the young, by women, and by black and brown voters. Across a sprawling country, they reside in an archipelago of wealth, exclusive neighborhoods dotting a handful of cities and towns.”
The so-called “wealth primary” has become a critical factor in the outcome of presidential elections. In the last quarter of the twentieth century, in every election since the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon in 1974 and the election reform laws that followed, the major party White House candidate who raised the most money the year before any primary or caucus votes had been cast, and been eligible for federal matching funds, became his party’s nominee for the general election. But the post-Watergate reforms about money in politics began to unravel in 2000, when Republican George W. Bush declined to participate in the presidential campaign matching-funds system and his $100,000-and-up donors also began to blatantly number their campaign checks, so that they and their industry would receive “credit” after the election for the campaign cash contributed. The Democratic Party presidential nominees (in 2004 Senator John Kerry and Barack Obama in 2008) soon thereafter also opted out of the reform system, and the financial floodgates have been wide open ever since.
The bottom line is that the candidate raising the most financial contributions in the year before the actual voting won the nomination of his party every time. The candidate with the most and largest contributions not coincidentally also usually generates the most media advertising, the most corresponding news media coverage “buzz” and public perceptions about the candidate’s “momentum,” and eventually the most votes.
By the end of 2015, the top fundraisers in the 2016 White House race were Democrat Hillary Clinton with $94 million and Republican Jeb Bush with $133 million. Clinton, the First Lady during former President Bill Clinton’s two terms in office, a U.S. senator from New York between 2001 and 2009, and secretary of state in the first Barack Obama administration, correspondingly led her next closest primary opponent, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, by sixteen percentage points in opinion surveys. However, the declining fortunes of Jeb Bush, the son of the forty-first president and brother of the forty-third president, reflected the exception that proves the rule; although the early frontrunner in mid-2015, as of January 2016 he was polling sixth in a race crowded with more than a dozen Republican hopefuls.
The commanding ten- to twenty-point lead taken by Republican candidate Donald Trump through most of the second half of 2015 indicates that, whether won through paid organizing and advertising or generated free of charge, media buzz is an essential factor determining the prospects of politicians seeking the American presidency. The pugnacious billionaire businessman and television personality eschewed traditional fundraising and spent relatively little of his own money, around $6 million, by the end of 2015. At that point, he had hardly paid for any political advertising. Yet his outspoken and often provocative public statements—calling Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists, proposing a ban on Muslims entering the United States, claiming that thousands of New Jersey Muslims cheered the September 11 attacks, debunking the prisoner-of-war heroism of Republican Senator John McCain—enabled Trump to dominate front pages, news broadcasts, and social media feeds for months. The result was massive public attention and a corresponding lead in opinion surveys.