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In our political rewards system, fundraising tops accountability. That has to change

Lincoln Project revelations expose broken model that works only for a connected few

A billboard from the Lincoln Project is seen in New York City in October. The group’s founders understood that a market for anti-Trump donors existed and they rode it all the way to the bank, Winston writes.
A billboard from the Lincoln Project is seen in New York City in October. The group’s founders understood that a market for anti-Trump donors existed and they rode it all the way to the bank, Winston writes. (John Nacion/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images file photo)

Money has always played a major role in politics, and that’s not likely to change. But over the last decade, something significant has changed. The political class — consultants, donors, political committees and the media — have come to see money not as a resource but as an outcome. 

The political reward system has created a model that works for consultants, the media and super PACs that dominate the political environment, but it is failing candidates, the donors who fund campaigns and those who value civil political discourse and democracy. And it’s dividing the country in the process.

Today, our system of campaign politics rewards anger (as I wrote about last week) and defines success by a model that produces money for campaign consultants, whether they win or lose. We can thank the combination of the McCain-Feingold law and the Citizens United decision for our current predicament.

Together, they minimized the role of the parties and candidate campaigns and made PACs and super PACs the dominant power in many campaigns for one simple reason: That’s where the money is. Many times, you won’t find top strategists or ad people working directly on major campaigns these days. They operate independently, legally restricted from any interaction with the candidates and campaigns they are supporting and often serving up background information for the media. But most importantly, they employ a circular model to attract donors by offering them a way to have a bigger impact on the election and its outcome.

A cautionary tale

Most stay under the radar, but once in a while, we get a glimpse of what goes on. The Lincoln Project is a case in point. Once media darlings, as self-defined Republicans against Donald Trump and later GOP senators, the Lincoln Project was even featured on “60 Minutes.”

Now, it’s being labeled as a group of profiteers, some even calling them grifters. If media reports are correct that the PAC spent on direct advertising only about a third of the $90 million it raised, with much going to board members and their companies, I suspect Democratic donors are coming to grips with that hard reality.

Putting the John Weaver issues aside, the Lincoln Project operationally seemed the perfect embodiment of the political rewards system. It’s founders understood that a market existed — in this case, for anti-Trump donors. So, they designed a vehicle, a super PAC, that would attract mostly Democratic donors by portraying themselves as heroic “Never Trumpers.”

They created harsh, personal negative ads that, I’m guessing, thrilled donors and raised millions of dollars. 

The media, enthralled with the tough ads, gave them a platform, constantly touting their latest eye-popping fundraising totals. Negative campaign ads can raise money, so that’s where they targeted their efforts, reaching out to their donors through more appeals for money to get them on air, regardless of the actual success of the ads.

Whatever their original intentions, they all made lots of money. Mission accomplished.

The political reward system encourages a reliance on negative ads with hyperbolic appeals to donors, sometimes concocting campaign polls designed to gin up money. It depends on an often symbiotic relationship with the media, with its insatiable appetite for explosive ads and with fundraising numbers as the metric of success.

No accountability

One thing that the political rewards system almost never does is demand accountability for campaign performance. Hundreds of millions of dollars are raised from often unsuspecting donors and spent on negative ad campaigns with no data to show whether those ads had any impact.

Michael Bloomberg spent more than a billion dollars trying to win the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination and then to help Joe Biden take Florida. Bloomberg lost the primary, and Biden lost Florida by a wider margin than Hillary Clinton.   

Another Democrat, Tom Steyer, spent $350 million in the 2020 primaries, much of it on ad buys. He didn’t make it to March.

South Carolina Senate candidate Jaime Harrison raised $130 million, only to lose to Sen. Lindsay Graham by 10 points. Nothing personal, but Harrison wasn’t named to head the Democratic National Committee because of his electoral success. It was for his fundraising prowess and name ID. That’s what gets rewarded in politics today — money and media coverage.

Likewise, the Republican candidates and outside groups spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the Georgia Senate runoffs, and we all know how all that movie ended.

John D. Rockefeller, a man who knew something about the value of money, once said, “How much money does it take to make a man happy? Just one more dollar.”

But in politics, one more dollar is never enough. 

Our political rewards system demands more money but not more accountability. It’s time to trade this broken system for one that actually values accountability. One that creates benchmarks that matter. Does a negative ad buy actually move voters or just get eyeballs on social media to attract donors? Do social media ads even work? 

Donors have to stop funding efforts that make them feel good and must demand the kind of results they expect from their brokers and their boards of directors. Small donors can do the same and should. 

To restore their own credibility, the media must return to reporting on politics rather than being central participants in a system that is failing the country.

Good people on both sides are burning out on the entire system. Most members of Congress didn’t come to Washington to get rich. Spending time 24/7 dialing for dollars instead of pushing their issues and ideas wasn’t how they saw the job.

If we want to keep the country’s best in Congress, something has to change. A good place to start is with the two parties and their political committees setting new accountability standards to reform a political rewards system that only works for the connected few. 

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.

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