Perhaps alarmed at Michael Bloomberg’s rise in the polls, Bernie Sanders recently tweeted an accusation that the former New York mayor was trying to “buy the presidency” and should not be allowed to do so. Sanders is obviously aiming his ire at Bloomberg’s campaign, which is self-funded by his vast fortune, but is spending your own money on a campaign really buying the presidency?
In my view, it is not. Bloomberg can spend millions of dollars on ads and it can even be said that he bought his way into the upcoming Democratic debate, but that is not the same as buying the presidency. So far, Bloomberg’s expenditures have not translated into a primary election or caucus victory. They haven’t even translated into frontrunner status in the polls.
What Bloomberg’s money has bought are a platform and a megaphone. His money has so far done nothing more than put his message in front of people. The test for Mayor Mike is whether voters will respond to his message now that they are hearing it.
The bottom line here is that Bloomberg’s ads don’t necessarily translate into votes. The candidate who spends the most money often wins the election, but that is not always the case. To find an exception, we need only look back to 2016 when Donald Trump was outraised and outspent by Hillary Clinton but still managed to eke out an Electoral College victory.
On the other hand, it seems that Bernie Sanders is trying to buy the election and doing so with taxpayer money. Senator Sanders’ platform is constructed with unfunded (and unfundable) promises to voters. Vote for Sanders and you’ll get free healthcare and free college among other giveaway programs. No charge for this and complimentary that!
Sanders is literally promising a quid pro quo in which, if you vote for him, he will give you free stuff from the government. To me, that is buying votes.
Further, I’m not sure how Sanders proposes to solve the problem of Bloomberg spending his own money on his campaign. The only two options that I can see are to ban billionaires from holding public office or to ban billionaires from spending their own money on their campaigns.
Both possible solutions would almost certainly be unconstitutional. The Constitution specifies the required qualifications for presidents. Adding a no-billionaires requirement would necessitate a constitutional amendment per the Supreme Court in US Term Limits vs. Thornton (no relation to me by the way). Anything that requires a constitutional amendment is a nonstarter in our divided country.
A limit on candidates spending their own money would also likely run afoul of the Constitution. The Court held in Buckley vs. Valeo that campaign spending is a First Amendment issue, saying, “A restriction on the amount of money a person or group can spend on political communication during a campaign necessarily reduces the quantity of expression by restricting the number of issues discussed, the depth of their exploration, and the size of the audience reached.”
Bloomberg’s money does give him an advantage over less-wealthy candidates, but such a private campaign may turn out to be more Astroturf than grassroots. The mayor may find that a campaign around built around ads paid for out of your own bank account is a hollow shell of a campaign.