How often do you think the biggest spender wins the election here in the U.S.? Would you be surprised to find out it’s 88.5% of the time in the House and 82.9% of the time in the Senate?
Far more often than not, the best fundraiser wins. As a result, campaign finance stateside has exploded in recent years to records we could scarcely imagine. Where does the money come from, where is it going, and how has it impacted our democratic process?
That’s what we’re answering today with Sheila Krumholz, executive director for the Center for Responsive Politics, the organization behind OpenSecrets.
Listen for an honest, nonpartisan account of how money begets influence in politics. There’s never been a better time to learn about the relationship than now.
Kinsey Grant, Morning Brew business editor and podcast host [00:00:09] Hey, everybody, and welcome to Business Casual. It is me, Kinsey Grant, and we're talking checkbooks. So go grab yours, and let's get into it. [sound of a ding]
Kinsey [00:00:18] For hundreds of years, the United States has prided itself on democracy. Every four years, we participate in the greatest example of our democratic process by voting a commander-in-chief into office. But what if those votes matter less than the money each candidate rakes in from campaign donors? We know money makes campaigning possible. But what if it also makes winning possible? What if elections aren't decided by the people, but rather by the campaign donors? It's unsettling to think about, but it might very well be true.
Kinsey [00:00:49] So today, we are exploring the intricate and deeply interesting world of campaign finance with one big question to answer: Does the candidate with the most money win? And truthfully, there's no time like the present to figure out an answer to that question. I mean, when this Business Casual episode comes out, we'll be a short two weeks away from the 2020 presidential election. That means it is crunch time for candidates, for their campaign teams, and most importantly, for their donors.
Kinsey [00:01:16] We've only got a couple weeks left to post on our Instagram stories that we're registered to vote and donated to a campaign. So, let's not waste another second. Time to understand campaign finance. I am excited to introduce my fantastic guest today, who will help us do just that. Sheila Krumholtz, executive director for the Center for Responsive Politics, aka the organization behind OpenSecrets.org. Sheila, welcome to Business Casual.
Sheila Krumholtz, executive director for the Center for Responsive Politics [00:01:42] Thank you so much. Delighted to be here.
Kinsey [00:01:44] I'm delighted to have you here. I have been so excited to make this episode for such a long time. I find campaign finance so interesting. And I think to me, this is one of those big episodes that we always hear about the importance of campaign finance, but we never really understand why, or how, or how this came to be. So I'm excited to dig in a little deeper here. Before we get into that nitty-gritty, can you tell me a little bit more about what OpenSecrets and CRP do, and most importantly, why you do it.
Sheila [00:02:10] Yes, I'd be happy to. So OpenSecrets.org is the website of our organization, the Center for Responsive Politics. This is our 37th year, so we've been doing it for quite a while. And we have a team of about almost 20 in Washington, D.C., and we are tracking the money following—or wherever it flows—in national politics.
Sheila [00:02:31] So that includes the campaign donations, which importantly we add value to. We take the data from the Federal Election Commission. We code them by industry, we standardize donations by organization and interest group so that we can crunch the numbers, aggregate them, sum up so that people get an at-a-glance view of the money. Kind of bird's-eye view.
Sheila [00:02:52] But also, we drill down to the transaction-level detail and try to be as transparent about our methodology and all of the money as possible so that people trust our methodology, trust the data, the numbers, and get into it—dig in and find the answers to the questions they have.
Kinsey [00:03:12] Yeah. This certainly is, I would say, high-stakes [chuckles] data analytics when we think about what the purpose of OpenSecrets and your projects that you're working on are. It's, to use your words, fingerprinting donors, following the money. These are all hugely important projects to be undertaking. And that's why I'm so excited to really dig in and understand them a little better today.
Kinsey [00:03:32] So, without further ado, let's do just that. We're going to get to this answer of who wins elections, you know, the victor, the fundraiser. [laughs] But first, let's get a little bit of a stronger grasp on campaign finance at its core. Can you tell me just what it is?
Sheila [00:03:47] It's complicated. But let me try to break it down. So the campaigns, the candidates, and the political action committees, and the party committees all have to file periodic reports of their financial activity, where they get their money, how they spend their money. And they need to report the occupation and employer of their individual donors so that we know that there isn't some kind of evasion of the disclosure and limits, so that we can track where the money's coming from and understand that it's coming within the rules—that people are playing by the rules.
Sheila [00:04:27] And we also see the campaign donations from, for instance, ActBlue now, which is really just a fundraising website. It's a tool that basically all of the Democrats use to more effectively raise funds online. And then the counterpart for that, for the Republicans, is WinRed. And they are giving massive amounts of information, every donation. So not just those that used to be itemized—those over $200 that the FEC would require and provide disclosure on their website for. But every single dollar.
Sheila [00:05:08] Which means that we now have more than 100 million records just for this cycle alone, which is just astronomical. It's mind-boggling how much data there is just for a single cycle. And that's because of the advances of technology.
Sheila [00:05:24] It's also because there's just so much excitement. There's so much energy. And there are tons of new donors, people who haven't given before, who are getting newly engaged, often giving very small amounts. So you don't have to be a high roller to participate. Lots of people are getting engaged with small donations.
Kinsey [00:05:42] So why is it important for, let's say, the everyday American to understand the impacts of campaign finance, even if you're not donating to a campaign or to any sort of political entity during this cycle? Why should we care?
Sheila [00:05:55] I think it really boils down to why do we care about having a democracy? This aspect—the money—is not everything. This is just one aspect, but it's a critical aspect to understand because the money is so essential. You cannot win in American politics without money and without, frankly, at the national level, a lot of money. And so people need to understand that there are, as you say, high stakes involved.
Sheila [00:06:30] People are raising millions of dollars. For a House race, last cycle, on average, it was $2.5 million. And for a winning Senate seat, it cost more than $15 million. And, I don't know about you, but I wouldn't know where to begin to raise that kind of money for a race that you're going to repeat, for a House member, every two years, and for a senator, every six years.
Sheila [00:06:55] And at the same time, they're supposed to be legislated. They're supposed to understand all the rules, read up on the issues, talk to people, get smart, and be able to vote based on the merits. The problem is that the money required to win office is so high that instead, what is happening is that incumbents are spending more and more of their time, hours every day, fundraising.
Sheila [00:07:21] And that means they're not spending time getting smart on the issues. They're relying on people to kind of serve them up information on a silver spoon. And those people are moneyed people. Those people are influential, powerful money people with lobbyists who have motivation to provide a narrow focus.
Sheila [00:07:39] So, bottom line, our democracy. We own it. It's ours. We're paying for these people to go represent us in Washington. And if we check out, if we kind of outsource that role, there are people who would love to take our place at the table. And I know it's really trite. You hear this a million times [laughs] too often, but it is absolutely true in this case. If you are not at the table, you are on the menu.
Sheila [00:08:05] If you're not paying attention, if you're not engaged in politics—you don't have to be a donor. But if you're not paying attention, if you're not speaking up when something really does matter to you, there are people who are paid a lot of money to take that phone call, to have that meeting, to be heard, and to serve up only a narrow slice of the information.
Sheila [00:08:24] So our employees in Washington—the risk is that they're only getting a very skewed perspective on the issues. They think we don't care because they're not hearing from us, and they vote the way the money wants them to vote. And then they get contributions for their reelection. And it's a mutually beneficial system. But the public is cut out.
Kinsey [00:08:43] Yeah.
Sheila [00:08:44] So that's what's at risk here—is that our democracy can be skewed, even, you could say, corrupted by money's powerful influence.
Kinsey [00:08:53] Yeah. And in preparing for this interview, one of the biggest trends that I have picked up on is basically this cycle. Money begets political influence, which then begets more money. It's this cycle that is pretty ceaseless. And I think it's really important to take a moment to understand just how much is at stake. The future of our democracy is at stake [indistinct]. I'm not trying to sound too inflammatory here. This is really what's going on.
Kinsey [00:09:17] When we think about the money that is happening right now and the donations that are happening, and it seems pretty outlandish and honestly unreasonable to just expect everybody in D.C. to [laughs] all agree to lower the table stakes and say, if we can get reelected for a $1 million instead of $50 million for the Senate, why don't we do that? I can't imagine a future in which everybody just agrees that that's going to be the norm and agrees to do something like that. [laughs]
Sheila [00:09:44] Well, that's absolutely right. And the courts have stated in many court decisions, but most recently in Citizens United, reaffirming that money equals speech and therefore you cannot limit how much money people can spend. And so now it can they've sustained the limits on how much campaigns can raise from an individual.
Sheila [00:10:08] So you can't, as a candidate, accept a $1 billion from a donor. You can only accept a limited amount, but you can, as a company, as an individual, give $1 billion to an outside organization that is going to spend money, perhaps very narrowly, to support a candidate or oppose a candidate.
Sheila [00:10:28] Bottom line, the system is awash in money. The rules do not encourage limits or make it difficult to kind of rein it in without the will in Congress to really make change, make real change. And as you say, these are the people who won based on the current system. So they don't have a lot of motivation to try to make it more difficult for themselves in the next race.
Kinsey [00:10:53] Yeah. If the system works for them, why would they want to change it? So I want to get a better understanding of 2020 specifically. You mentioned we have a lot of smaller donations, a lot of first-time donors, people getting involved in the process for the first time maybe ever. Can you give me the state of affairs, the state of play for the 2020 election in terms of campaign finance? What are the numbers look like?
Sheila [00:11:14] It is astonishing, but we are looking at the first $11 billion election. Based on the fundraising so far and based on extrapolating from the rate of increase that we usually see in these last couple of months before a presidential election, we anticipate that instead of a $6.5 billion election, as we saw in 2016, the cost will go up to around $10.8 billion.
Sheila [00:11:47] So a huge increase, just really a staggering sum for us. Kind of blew our minds. And we think this is conservative. We think that this may, in fact, go higher. Part of what's driving that is, as we saw, the billionaire candidates running for the White House this cycle, but also really intense interest.
Sheila [00:12:10] Energy broadly across the public for, you know, many more people, new donors to be giving for the first time, and as they say, giving small amounts. And that is not just on one side or the other. That is across the ideological spectrum. President Trump has, you know, hit the record in terms of small donor fundraising. But on the other hand, as I say, ActBlue, on behalf of the Democrats, raising money for the Democrats is an enormously successful platform for the Democrats this time.
Sheila [00:12:44] So, again, a 50% increase over 2016. At least more than $7 billion has already been spent. This will be the most expensive election cycle ever. And by a wide margin.
Kinsey [00:12:58] Yeah. It's insane to think about how staggering those numbers are. I mean, $11 billion is the GDP of some small countries. [laughs] And we're thinking about it in one election cycle. This is going to have to happen again in four years, hopefully. So do you think that this is going to set a standard for future elections or is this the outlier election?
Sheila [00:13:17] That is really the big question. I mean, it's impossible to predict. Again, we don't even know exactly how much this election will tally in the end. We think it'll be around $11 billion, but it could go higher. And there are so many unusual factors this cycle that it seems, to me, that it might be the outlier.
Sheila [00:13:40] Again, the high small dollar giving, much higher than before, women really ramping up their political activity, both in terms of donations and running for office. These billionaires running for the White House. The pandemic. We thought that that would have a suppressive effect on the fundraising.
Kinsey [00:14:00] Right.
Sheila [00:14:01] There's less money. You know, it's being spent differently. So there's less money going to rallies, you know, to travel and events. More money is being spent on ads and, of course, more money being spent on digital ads. But those are lower costs than TV. So there are all of these different factors that—some of them contradictory. It's hard to imagine that we'll see this again in four years.
Sheila [00:14:27] But on the other hand, it might be that this is the new normal and now it's just, you know, kind of no-holds-barred race for cash, and we won't go back to the lower levels of spending. I mean, that's entirely possible because typically we say every cycle, you know, yet again, historic spending. But this is just so bonkers that it's [laughs] really hard to think it'll be the new normal.
Kinsey [00:14:55] Yeah, certainly. And bonkers is absolutely the word. I mean, look at the historic [indistinct] [laughs] for increases. And to imagine that we're gonna have to do this again in four years is insane. And what this could even mean for midterm fundraising too, I think is really important. If this is how you win an election now, what is that going to mean for smaller races that aren't [chuckles] the top office in the United States? It could have a lot of lasting effects.
Kinsey [00:15:18] I also find it so interesting that it goes in the face of logic to think that we are having record spending right now, record donating right now in the midst of a global health crisis and a recession here in the United States. The logical thing to expect would be that people have a little less discretionary income. They're going to donate less to political campaigns. They'll say, well, I'll do my duty by voting. I don't need to give money because I have a little less right now. And that's just not what's happening.
Kinsey [00:15:45] Do you think that, maybe though, is why there are more smaller amount donations? Or is that a stretch?
Sheila [00:15:51] I think people are just highly motivated. And even if it is counter to their own financial well-being or just very difficult for them, they see this as a really important election that could determine the direction of the country and their own financial fortunes. I have to also interject here that megadonors are giving [laughs] a lot of money.
Kinsey [00:16:16] Yeah.
Sheila [00:16:17] So the top 100 donors have given more than $750 million, or 8% percent of all given—just the top 100 people. So there is this surge in money from small donors. It accounts for 22% of all fundraising. But just a handful—a really concentrated pool of people are really, you know, swinging for the fences as well.
Kinsey [00:16:41] So at this point in the election cycle, do we have an idea of who—the Trump campaign or the Biden campaign—has raised more?
Sheila [00:16:49] The Biden campaign has done very well, particularly because they got such a late start in comparison with Trump. I mean, Trump was raising funds like on day one and never stopped, never looked back. And Biden raised huge sums in a number of events. Did very well this summer, raised like $4 million in one hour and 60,000 new donors from the debate, and then raised millions more following the passing of Justice Ginsburg.
Sheila [00:17:28] So I think it's incredible the success that he has had in fundraising, particularly, again, given the two-year, well, three-year advance start that Trump had enjoyed. Biden reported raising $531 million, more than half a billion dollars, to Trump's $476 million. Again, just for him to have leapfrogged Trump at this point is incredible.
Kinsey [00:17:53] Yeah. Because Trump started—basically he filed for reelection the day after the inauguration or inauguration day or something like that, right. He's been at this for quite some time. [laughs]
Sheila [00:18:02] Yeah. Since day one. And then there are all these outside groups, including outside groups. Again, many of them are super PACs that only exist to support one candidate. So they've really effectively become extensions of the campaign, even though they're nominally independent. Including the spending by outside groups, Trump has $595 million and Biden more than $700 million spent.
Sheila [00:18:28] We're seeing, again, the importance of these outside groups, how again, there's a lot of money coming from small donors. But these megadonors, who can just plop down tens of millions of dollars in a single gift, are making an impact. And especially in, I would say the presidential campaign, but even more in the most competitive congressional campaigns, because that is the instance where they're not raising, you know, hundreds of millions of dollars like the presidential candidates.
Sheila [00:18:57] So a $1 million gift, a $10 million gift to a super PAC that is supporting or opposing a candidate is huge and can, I think, arguably be determinative in a close race. And that's where they're spending the money. They're not spending it broadly. They're targeting laser-like on the best opportunity to hold the party advantage or pick up a seat.
Kinsey [00:19:20] Yeah. And I think there are a lot of PACs and super PACs out there. They have that advantage of being incredibly precise and targeting one specific candidate, one specific issue, what have you, instead of just trying to cast a wide net, which we know, finding the niche is often where we find the most success. Is there a point in the election cycle at which it's too late? Is there a most important point to have the most money if you are running a campaign? I guess I'm asking, with a couple weeks left in this election cycle, what can we expect? [laughs]
Sheila [00:19:53] There's so much money. It leads me to question how they can actually—how they have time to spend the money. And they may not spend it all. There might be money left on the table on Election Day that then gets transferred to the parties. We saw that with past presidential campaigns, but that is painful for them.
Sheila [00:20:15] The thing you do not want is to have lost the race and had money in the bank. So at some point, you're right. Money is no longer going to get you there. And I think that's true of all elections. There comes a point where both candidates have a threshold amount. It's no longer about the money. It's about their ability to campaign, to make a connection to the voters, their charisma, their efficacy. How effective are they convincing voters that they are the right choice? So, frankly, we may already be there. We have very little time left.
Kinsey [00:20:50] All right. I love the sense of urgency. Now that we kind of understand where we are, I want to get a little better grip on what it means in the broader context of this election. But first, we're going to take a short break to hear from our sponsor. —
Kinsey [00:21:05] And now back to the conversation with Sheila Krumholtz. Sheila, here's the big question. We've been dancing around it. It's time to finally ask it. Does the best fundraiser win the election?
Sheila [00:21:15] Yes and no.
Kinsey [00:21:18] My favorite kind of answer. [laughter] It depends.
Sheila [00:21:22] It depends. So overwhelmingly, yes. The candidate with the most money wins, but not always. And even in 2018, which was a pretty bad year for the Republicans, even then, the win rate was just under 89% in the House for top-spending candidates and close to 83% in the Senate. So definitely, the vast majority of the time, whichever candidate spends the most claims victory.
Sheila [00:21:54] The lowest we've seen, the lowest percent we've seen in the House this century, in the 21st century, was in 2010 when it was just under 86%. Most cycles, frankly, for House races, it hovers around 90%. In the Senate, it usually hovers in about the 80% range, sometimes in the high 70s, meaning again, that 79% of the time the candidate that spends most wins. So last cycle, eight of nine House races and five of six Senate races were won by the candidate that spent the most.
Sheila [00:22:30] But, there are, again, so many factors. One of them I'd already mentioned—when the candidate has raised tons of money, but it's not coming from their state. So that's why we pay attention to the geography where the money is coming from. All the candidates march up to the megadonors in the biggest metro areas every cycle. They're hitting Beverly Hills, Manhattan, Dallas, Miami, Chicago, Philadelphia, and D.C. California and New York have long been kind of the wallet of campaigns.
Sheila [00:23:06] That's not going to get you there on Election Day. You need to have used that money to convert it into excitement among the people that count—that can cast votes. And again, small donors—it's meaningful to a point. But at some point, a campaign has enough money and it's no longer about the money. It's about their connection, their ideas, whether they're speaking to the needs and views of the people they hope to represent.
Kinsey [00:23:33] So where does all of this money go? When we think about, obviously fundraising it wherever [laughs] the wallets are, whether that's LA or New York or what have you, but when they actually go to spend the money and spend it in an effective way, advertising, obviously, we talked about digital ads and TV ads, but where else does the money go that is essential to a successful campaign?
Sheila [00:23:53] Yeah. In the beginning, it goes to setting up the ground game. So they're creating the field offices. They're hiring people. It goes to administrative costs and salaries. And then at some point in the election cycle, they flip to media. So they've got their offices, they've got their organization set, and they're now beginning to turn more attention to messaging—to getting their message out in a bigger way as people begin to tune in more to the election and really start paying attention.
Sheila [00:24:24] Throughout this time, they're spending a lot of money on fundraising. I mean, they never let up on fundraising. And again, what they're hoping for is to catch fire online because that's going to be the quickest and most cost-effective way to raise money.
Sheila [00:24:38] Again, typically, there would be a certain amount spent on travel and getting out the vote, you know, door-knocking events, big rallies—not happening right now. So it's odd, in a way, that we're seeing just money gushing into politics, but fewer and fewer ways to use it.
Kinsey [00:25:00] It just is a little troubling to think about all of this, though. In terms of the percentages of top spenders who, when it sounds like buying an election in a lot of ways, if you can directly correlate the amount that a campaign is spending with the outcome of the election, it gives me pause. How is this OK?
Sheila [00:25:19] It feels troubling. I can see that people would like it to be more variable. And so what we say is, money is essential. Without it, you cannot win. But again, at some point, it's not going to get you there.
Kinsey [00:25:35] Yeah.
Sheila [00:25:35] So you need the other characteristics. You need a great campaign team, a great fundraiser, good organization, strategy, ideas, you know, fresh ideas, charisma. Do the people feel like you're their woman or their man who are going to represent them as they'd like in Washington? So I can see why it's concerning.
Sheila [00:26:00] But on the other hand, I also agree, [laughs] candidates, political operatives would say, well, the money is also evidence that they are a good candidate. That they are connecting with people. So it's kind of chicken and egg thing a bit.
Kinsey [00:26:17] Yeah. And I can see that, especially if you run a grassroots campaign that raises a huge load of money, and that's evidence of the people backing you. But when [laughs] you think about some of these big-time donors who are billionaires themselves, those are the people who oftentimes have influence and can get the people to join their—and we'll talk about this shortly—to join their Hampton's soiree that's $25,000 a table for some super PAC. And that, to me, is what I think is concerning.
Kinsey [00:26:44] But I wonder if this has always been the case. We talk about these top spenders winning more often than not in their races. Has that—obviously, the spending amount has gone up. We've talked about this. But has this always been the case—that the top spender will win? Is there a historical precedent for us to better understand why this is happening?
Sheila [00:27:03] It has always been the case. Ever since we've been tracking it, it has been overwhelmingly typical for the candidate that spends the most to win. So, yes, that absolutely is a factor. Again, it's, I think, less of a factor when you're talking about two candidates raising millions of dollars and one of them has a million more than the other. You know, at that point, if you're running for the House and you've already raised $1 million and your opponent has raised $2 million, maybe the money is determinative, but maybe not.
Sheila [00:27:40] I think at a threshold, it becomes more about the other factors. But absolutely, the money that is being raised and spent from very narrow sources, very politically influential, and sources that have business before the federal government, and being spent, again, it could be spent in like a devastating campaign in the 11th hour of an election. And, you know, huge sums invested.
Sheila [00:28:09] It's very possible in those cases that you could argue our politics is for sale, our campaigns are bought and sold to these megarich, very influential donors, many of whom have been giving at the highest levels for years and years, decades. So there are people who are accustomed to kind of wielding a big stick in politics and have done so for years.
Sheila [00:28:36] And that is why we say we need to understand who they are, what they're spending, what they want, what they're getting in return for all of this largesse and influence.
Kinsey [00:28:48] Yeah, it's clearly evidenced that there are entities out there circumnavigating the rules, circumnavigating these spending limits to achieve their outcome that they want the most. And that is troubling and should be troubling. But it seems like campaign [laughs] finance reform right now, in a litany of issues that we are facing at any given moment in the United States, hasn't been the top hot topic for any campaign that, you know, is active right now or has been in the last couple of years.
Kinsey [00:29:18] Sure, we talk about it. And certainly there are people out there who have worked to further campaign finance reform conversation. But, this doesn't seem like the biggest issue that we have right now. Is that an accurate representation [laughs] of reality?
Sheila [00:29:34] Global pandemic —
Kinsey [00:29:35] Yeah.
Sheila [00:29:37] Yeah, absolutely. It is not the first order of business, perhaps, but it is what underpins all of the major problems that we are experiencing in this country. We don't have a system which elevates the issues, the policies, the ideas, the people based on the merits. Too often, it is the money that speaks loudest.
Sheila [00:30:07] And Americans need to understand the role that money plays in how our politics becomes disproportionately influenced by these rich people, these powerful people. It's not just this administration. This has been going on for a long time. Political appointees. Appointments that go to megadonors to the party. The DeVos family—not to pick on this administration—but Betsy DeVos, secretary of education—her family has been huge donors to the Republican Party over decades.
Sheila [00:30:45] More recently, there have been questions raised about the donations raised by Louis DeJoy, postmaster general, who is a megadonor for—megadonor gets used maybe too much—but a large donor to the Trump campaign. It is nothing new. Both parties do it, giving these plum perks, these ambassadorships to megadonors. It shouldn't be that way.
Sheila [00:31:10] So it is something that I think represents a real kind of decay with our campaign finance system that is undermining our democratic process. And both sides do it. And I think people across the ideological spectrum, Americans know it's happening and are concerned about it. So I think there is political will. It just isn't in the hands of the people who can make change—yet.
Kinsey [00:31:37] Yeah, absolutely. I think that we all should take a minute to recognize the impact of these shortcuts to power and the ways that they can undermine democracy. So while we do that, we're going to take a quick break to hear from our partner. —
Kinsey [00:31:51] And now back to the conversation with Sheila Krumholtz. So, Sheila, let's talk about the corporate involvement here. We've talked about some of the people who hold democracy [laughs] by the purse strings right now. Do you think that that has an impact on the company's reputation? If we see someone like—I think the obvious example from the last couple of years has been Stephen Ross. His portfolio of companies related they own things like SoulCycle and Equinox.
Kinsey [00:32:16] And he was holding this huge campaign—or this huge fundraiser—for the Trump campaign in the Hamptons and caught a lot of flack for it. People canceled their Equinox memberships and said, I'm never going back to SoulCycle. And I think that part of this is because consumers have come into a lot of power and recognize that they do have the power with voting with your wallet first.
Kinsey [00:32:36] Do you think that that matters? That in the grand scheme of campaign finance, when we see stories like Stephen Ross and other business leaders who are donating to campaigns, that maybe their biggest consumers and biggest customers don't necessarily agree with? Does it matter?
Sheila [00:32:51] Oh, yeah, it absolutely matters. It matters to the corporations because they don't want to lose their customers. And very often donations, even if they think that they're being careful, the corporation's donations might blow up in their face, as happened some years ago with Target when they made donations that ultimately ended up with an anti-gay rights candidate. And of course, they have had, for many years, a very public-facing campaign to support LGBTQ rights. So people boycott Target.
Sheila [00:33:25] They're going to sit up and pay attention. And that was true again in the example you gave. That's something that happens time and again, and I think is why corporations have been fairly unwilling to take up the opportunity to get more deeply involved in politics directly. Since Citizens United, they have had the ability to spend directly from their corporate treasury on ads in favor of or opposing candidates. But if they are giving, it is largely through dark money sources.
Sheila [00:33:57] And even then, there can be inadvertent lapses of information where it leaks that a source has given money to a candidate or cause that if it were made public, would harm their reputation. So I think most companies are, again, most kind of blue chip companies are staying away from this. There are some corporations that are more political and they're heavily engaged. But the fear had been that all the big corporations were suddenly going to be spending directly from the treasury after Citizens United, and that has not happened.
Sheila [00:34:31] So we'll see if there becomes more comfort with corporate involvement. But I think for those retail companies, I doubt that's going to happen anytime soon.
Kinsey [00:34:43] Yeah, it would be certainly very interesting to see in some sort of public disclosure of risk. [laughs] Maybe our CEO donates to an unfavorable political campaign or political party. So, Sheila, before I let you go, I've got one more question. In a year that has certainly been drowning in unexpectedness, what would you say has been the most unexpected part of this 2020 election? In what you found? What you've studied? What you've learned?
Sheila [00:35:11] Yeah, that's a great question. I am really keen to see where the outside money goes and whether it wins. Whether the outside spending—because they've already surpassed $1 billion already this cycle—the super PACs and outside groups. So we've talked about the important role they can play, how in certain races that money can be determinative. In many cases, probably dozens of races, the outside groups will spend more than the candidates themselves.
Sheila [00:35:45] So it's really important for us to understand the role they play, the influence they have, so that we can ask ourselves and have a conversation with each other. What is an acceptable system? Is it OK for one single billionaire to flip a seat, to flip a race in this way as they have in these cases? So we need to have the evidence.
Sheila [00:36:06] That's why OpenSecrets is here, to put the data out there and let the chips fall where they may. Let people talk about it and determine for themselves whether they want change. We are not here to say, there's too much money in politics. Get money out of politics. No. We are here to say, here's the money in politics. Now, here are the results. [laughs]
Sheila [00:36:27] And if you are unhappy with this system, then talk. Be heard. Be engaged. Get informed. Have the facts on your side, but then absolutely do not leave this to the highly paid lobbyists in Washington. Your representative in Congress, you're a senator, every political representative who is speaking on your behalf, in your name, should be hearing from you.
Kinsey [00:36:49] Yeah. I love it. Putting the information out there and letting people do with it what they will. We all have a voice. We just have to learn how to exercise it in the right and effective way. So, Sheila, thank you so, so much for coming on Business Casual. This has been such an enlightening conversation, learning about where the money goes and why it goes where it goes and how it all matters. I think, to my earlier point in the very beginning, we all know this happens. I love finding out why and how and why it matters, most importantly. So thank you so much for your insight and for taking the time. I really appreciate it.
Sheila [00:37:21] My pleasure. Thanks so much for having me.
Kinsey [00:37:30] Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Business Casual. I've got one thing and one thing only to tell you. If you haven't already, go vote. It's not that hard. Just do it. See you next time. [sound of a ding]