Winning elections is all about using funds wisely

It’s show time again. The party machines have revved up. The soundbites have been polished off. The candidates are out on the road pressing the flesh, occasionally taking time out to gaze up admiringly at their images on their posters.

Many candidates can expect to cough up well in excess of €10,000 each in the search for that coveted lifetime car space in Leinster House.

Since 2007, Ireland’s system of campaign funding has been overhauled, but there remain glitches in the system and certain parties, particularly Sinn Féin and Fine Gael, appear to be doing well under the current arrangements.

That said, Irish politicians spend chickenfeed when compared to their counterparts across the Atlantic.

Recently, the Washington Post newspaper examined the donor network of Hillary Clinton.

By November last, the Hillary campaign had managed to draw in $110m (€98.5m) in donations for her 2016 White House run.

The Post estimates, however, that over the course of their long political careers, Hillary and husband Bill have raised an astonishing $3bn — of which $2bn has gone to the Clinton Foundation, much of it for philanthropic causes.

The paper, famous for breaking the ‘Watergate’ story, concluded that the Clinton fundraising operation has no equal, dwarfing even that of the Bush family.

Overall, however, the financing of Republican politicians runs well ahead of that of those from the Democratic party.

What is unique about the Clintons is their ability to woo competing interest groups.

They have pulled in $70m from Wall Street, while Sam Walton, founder of retail giant, Wal-Mart, a famously tough employer, was an early financial backer.

At the same time, Hillary has received millions from trade unions.

Critics cite backtracking on Hillary’s part in Senate votes on bankruptcy law reform as evidence that the money has, on occasions, talked.

Last week, former president Jimmy Carter, now 91, hit out at the extraordinary levels of campaign spending.

He pointed to an “erroneous ruling” of the US Supreme Court which means that “millionaires, billionaires, can put in unlimited amounts of money, giving legal bribery the chance to prevail….Working-class America being cheated out of opportunities to improve their lot in life.”

He recalled how different things were, back in 1976, when, as a Georgia peanut farmer, he won the presidency.

“When I ran against Gerald Ford — then US president — we didn’t raise a single penny to finance our campaigns against each other.”

Carter was referring to the ‘Citizens United’ decision delivered by the court in 2010.

The court majority ruled that the First Amendment of the US Constitution prohibits the government from restricting independent political expression by non-profit corporations.

The First Amendment is one of 10 adopted in 1791 that comprise the Bill of Rights.

The decision in favour of a conservative lobby group all but overturned the 2002 Campaign Reform Act, paving the way for the launch of many so called ‘super pacs.’

Judge Stevens delivered a dissenting opinion on behalf of four justices.

The ruling, he said, “threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the nation. A democracy cannot function effectively when its constituent members believe laws are being bought and sold.”

Increasingly, many appear to share this view.

Part of Donald Trump’s successful pitch is that he self-funds a campaign built largely on hype and celebrity. He is not beholden to anyone.

Bernie Sanders, Hillary’s rival, whose funding comes mainly from small donations, is eating into her once large lead.

The well-funded Jeb Bush, brother of George W, has all but disappeared from the Republican race.

The Post believes that Hillary’s network is now as much a liability as an asset.

Back home, measures have been taken to clean the political stables following the excesses of the ‘Galway tent’ years and decades in which the main parties appeared to be beholden to donors.

In 2007 and 2012, legislation was passed aimed at curbing large donations and boosting transparency.

Limits here are now much tighter than in either Northern Ireland or Britain.

Media investigations showed that the big parties, particularly Fianna Fáil, took in hundreds of thousands of euro they never disclosed.

The Moriarty and Beef Tribunals revealed the full extent of the tentacles of big business.

The Electoral Act 2012 set out new guidelines for candidates to follow, reducing the maximum donation a candidate or elected representative can receive from €2,540 to €1,000.

The amount a party can receive from an individual is also down to €2,500.

All corporate donations above €200 must be registered with the Standards in Public Office Commission.

People can no doubt get around the rules by spreading donations among groups of people, though such activity can be rumbled easily enough.

In practice, the days when businesspeople ran their own candidates, controlling them once in office should hopefully be at an end.

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan, a former cabinet minister, pressed for the reforms that finally took shape in 2012.

He believes that the system is working, here, but questions the bias in favour of incumbents that rewards Fine Gael with around €5m in state funding.

It also benefits heavily from its national draw.

Sinn Féin receives around €1.8m from the taxpayer, but it benefits greatly from its huge presence in the North where much laxer UK rules apply, ironically enough.

Large sums are raised by the Friends of Sinn Féin in the US.

Mr Ryan questions just how such funds can, in practice, be prevented from crossing from the North, given that Sinn Féin is an all-Ireland party which does not recognise the border.

Increasingly, electioneering is conducted online and via social media, where Sinn Féin is particularly active.

Social media is also allowing candidates and parties to reach selected voter groups for pretty modest outlays.

Last May, the Tories targeted selected voter groups in the south west of England and other swing constituencies building ‘communities of believers.’

This old establishment party had cottoned on to a new phenomenon: The electoral insurgency.

These days, perhaps after all, it is not how much money you have, but how effectively you spend it.

Perhaps, Jimmy Carter should rest more easily at night.

Finally, it is worth quoting one furious financial backer, a century ago: “We bought this guy, Teddy Roosevelt, but he wouldn’t stay bought!”

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