What is this country coming to if a billionaire can’t buy an election or two?
You’d think buying an election would be easy. This is, after all, the rough pitch that political consultants deliver when persuading donors to part with their money. (It’s also the primary theme of Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign.) The formula traditionally goes like this: Out-raise the competition, bludgeon them with attack ads, and watch the votes roll in. In the five years since the Supreme Court enshrined unlimited campaign contributions to organizations not directly affiliated with candidates, money has poured into the political system. And yet spending the cash haul effectively has never been more difficult.
Take the 2012 contest between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. Celebrated political strategist Karl Rove assured a murderers’ row of Republican megadonors that, with enough funding, his super-pac could put Romney in the White House. “I had every expectation we would be the victors,” says Home Depot co-founder Kenneth Langone, who gave half a million dollars to Rove’s American Crossroads. In the closing weeks of the campaign, Crossroads circulated a top-secret presentation to a small group of billionaires that projected Romney could win a “mandate” if they contributed an additional total of $25 million to fund a “surge” of negative ads. A handful ponied up, and on Election Night, they assembled in Boston certain they would be watching their investment pay off.
Instead they watched Rove’s infamous Fox News meltdown as their $117 million grubstake went up in smoke. To many of the billionaires it felt like a mugging. A few days after the election, New York hedge-fund manager Daniel Loeb, who’d helped finance Rove’s surge, tried to sue Crossroads and Fox News for misrepresenting the facts. “Loeb felt this was like an investment bank committing fraud on a road show,” a friend of his told me. After conferring with a securities lawyer, Loeb discovered that there are no investor protections in politics. He never filed a suit.
Maybe the lesson of Trump is that if you want to use your money to control a candidate, you have to be the candidate.