The 2016 campaign is going to be memorable for lots of reasons, but here's one you might not have considered: We may see more plutocrats' cash wasted this year than ever before. Ordinary people may be fooled into donating a few dollars to scam super PACs claiming to work on behalf of your favorite candidate, but there's also a higher-level grift at work, one that involves massaging the egos of incredibly wealthy people in order to separate them from their cash and put it in the pockets of political operatives.
As Matea Gold reported Monday in The Washington Post, Republicans are scrambling to provide a vehicle for their billionaire class to flush more of its money down the toilet. While Democrats have their dark money organizations in place, the GOP is in "a rush to identify the right organization to harness Trump's rich allies and run a sophisticated independent campaign. Two rival super PACs are in the mix, but both are newly formed and are viewed with skepticism by major donors and their advisers. The free-for-all environment alarms veteran party strategists who have recently signed on to try to help Trump win the White House."
That means a lot of political consultants are going to get rich. I should be clear that not all this money is going to be wasted, and the consultants who'll spend it do care about the outcome of the campaign. It's also true that TV advertising, where most of that money is going to be spent, can sometimes be useful. But often it isn't, and it's also the most effective way to run through millions of dollars in days or weeks.
Just consider the primary campaign. According to data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics, there was $382 million in outside money poured into the campaigns of Republicans not named Donald Trump: $121 million for Jeb Bush, $63 million for Ted Cruz, $62 million for Marco Rubio, $25 million for Scott Walker (remember him?), $24 million for Chris Christie, and on down the line. It was not exactly a good investment, and now some of the same donors who provided it are going to be hit up again for the general election.
So why is it that multi-millionaires and billionaires are such easy marks? Although I don't know too many billionaires myself, what I've heard from people who've dealt with them is that not only do most of them think that every dollar they have came only from their own brilliance and hard work, but they also think that because they've succeeded in business, they're so smart that they can move into any realm they please (like politics) and succeed there too, even if they actually know very little about how things work and what kind of an impact their money will and won't have.
There's also something about politics that lends itself to this misimpression, which is that everybody knows at least something about it. If you found yourself chatting with a physicist at a party, you probably wouldn't walk away saying, "That guy's not so smart. I could do quantum mechanics just as well as him." That's because almost everything about his area of expertise is opaque to you. But since you're an informed citizen, you know at least some things about politics, so it's easy to assume that you could make strategic decisions as well as any experienced politician or consultant. It's the same way every sports fan thinks he could do a better job coaching the 49ers or managing the Yankees than the people who spent decades reaching those positions.
Whether you're a political consultant looking for an eight-figure donation to a super PAC or a museum looking to finance a new wing, the way to get that money is to flatter the donor, insisting that it isn't just their money you're after, it's also their bottomless wisdom and insight. And you'll tell them that their donation will change the world in profound ways, which they also want to hear, since they fancy themselves bestriding history and shaping the course of events. Nobody makes for an easier mark than someone with a gargantuan ego who doesn't know what he doesn't know.
So again and again, these guys get hit up for millions, and they keep opening their wallets. Look, for instance, at casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who almost single-handedly bankrolled Newt Gingrich's 2012 presidential run (what a triumph that was), and wound up spending $150 million on the 2012 campaign in order to defeat Barack Obama. You may recall that Obama was not defeated, yet Adelson is undeterred: The New York Times reported last week that he's ready to spend $100 million helping Donald Trump. Upon hearing that news, a bunch of consultants started shopping for new cars.
There are exceptions to the rule of the naïve billionaire wasting his money on politics, none more notable than Charles and David Koch, bête noire of Democrats and campaign finance reform advocates. The Kochs decided some years ago that just handing millions to a media consultant wasn't a good way to have an impact, so they put a focus on grassroots organizing, particularly at the state and local level. The result was the creation of an enormous and extremely effective network of activists that can be mobilized again and again, one that at the end of last year employed 1,200 people spread over more than 100 offices across the country.
But as Tim Alberta and Eliana Johnson of National Review report this week, the Kochs are pulling back from some of their political activities. Weary of being publicly vilified and unhappy with the results of their efforts in past elections, they won't be spending on the presidential race this year and are shifting their focus to think tanks and charitable organizations instead of electoral politics. So there are at least two billionaires smart enough to realize that there's only so much you can do to influence an election, no matter how much money you have.
And there's only so much you can do when Donald Trump is your party's nominee. That may keep some mega-donors from making it rain, but there will be more than enough left to keep the business of the campaign going strong.