Joe Biden’s big money problem

Joe Biden is having no trouble raising money. In just one single evening last Wednesday, he raked in a cool $700,000 at a California fundraiser, where he hobnobbed with Hollywood bigshots like Jeffrey Katzenberg and Terry Press.

This suggests a possible serious problem for the former vice president. Money is useful in politics, especially in such a profoundly corrupt society as the United States. But where that money comes from still matters. What’s more, there is surely a point of diminishing returns — or even negative returns, where more money harms a campaign. Biden evinces no sign of having learned from the money problems of Hillary Clinton.

One surprising aspect of the 2016 campaign was that Clinton absolutely crushed Trump in the money race. She and her super PACs raked in nearly $1.2 billion, while Trump and associated operations raised just short of $650 million. She did this largely by cutting back on campaigning and spending much of her time zipping from one glitzy fundraiser to the next. As The New York Times reported in September 2016, in just the last two weeks of August she raised $50 million in 22 fundraisers:

If Mr. Trump appears to be waging his campaign in rallies and network interviews, Mrs. Clinton’s second presidential bid seems to amount to a series of high-dollar fund-raisers with public appearances added to the schedule when they can be fit in. Last week, for example, she diverged just once from her packed fund-raising schedule to deliver a speech. [The New York Times]

Despite his smaller cash hoard, the Trump campaign did more events than Clinton in every single swing state except Florida — 31 from Trump compared to 24 from Clinton in North Carolina, 28 to 26 in Pennsylvania, 30 to 18 in Ohio, 18 to 5 in Virginia, 14 to 8 in Michigan, and 9 to 5 in Wisconsin. Despite his total lack of political experience, Trump still seemed to spend his money with far more tactical savvy than the Clinton campaign, with its vast battalions of so-called data experts.

Indeed, a big fraction of that money likely hurt Clinton in the end. In addition to distracting her from a traditional campaign, it also made her appear — with considerable accuracy, frankly — as a tool of the rich. It jammed up her campaign messaging as being the candidate of the poor and working class, making her look like just another Democrat who talks a big game about inequality while quietly reassuring the big money donors behind closed doors that there is nothing to worry about.

Conversely, all this played directly into Trump’s narrative that he was free of this corruption due to funding his own campaign. In one of his bizarre bursts of insight, he described the way people get subtly corrupted by big donor fundraisers with perfect accuracy in 2015: “That is the way it is. Somebody gives them money, not anything wrong, just psychologically, when they go to that person, they’re going to do it,” he said on CNN. “They owe them. And by the way, they may therefore vote negatively toward the country. That’s not going to happen with me.”

Of course, Trump was lying. He did not entirely fund his own campaign. But Clinton scurrying from one pack of oligarchs to the next for the whole campaign played directly into his “Drain the Swamp” messaging.

By contrast, this cycle Trump is fully embracing the big donors and super PACs that he previously condemned. Corporate interests, enjoying their enormous tax cuts, are no doubt extremely stoked for him to win another term.

This creates an opportunity for the Democratic nominee to characterize Trump as a corrupt hypocrite — a liar who works hand-in-glove with American oligarchs to keep taxes low and regulations down. This would work perfectly with the very successful fundraising model that Bernie Sanders has innovated. As of the last filing period, he had raised more than any other candidate, with $20.7 million (though Biden is probably close by now). Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren are not far behind using similar tactics. Democrats could have their money cake and eat it too — running a well-funded campaign without the stench of corruption that comes from glad-handing plutocrats day in and day out. On the other hand, it will be much harder to make that case if the nominee is raising tons of cash from the same types of people Trump is going to.

The challenge of the Sanders model is that it requires credibility. Small donors are much more willing to step up when it’s part of a genuine promise to get corporate influence out of politics. One might conclude that Biden doesn’t want that, because he is perfectly fine with the status quo. It’s almost as if he’s served as a bag man for Delaware corporations for his entire Senate career, and would rather forego a potentially powerful political weapon against Trump than give up big-dollar fundraising. But that surely can’t be it.

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