After the campaigning is over, the volunteers leave, the printers are turned off and the buttons are put away, where does the money go?
Candidates and super PACs established in their name collect millions in contributions. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, candidates in the 2016 presidential race amassed a total of $1.5 billion in donations and their super PACs collected $618 million. President Donald Trump chose not to terminate his campaign committee since he is running for re-election in 2020, and as of June 2017 he had close to $12 million on hand. Hillary Clinton's campaign committee had $986,363 on hand in June.
Candidate Campaign Committees
These are the official committees run by the candidate and their campaign team. The Federal Election Commission has put into place rules that control how money is spent after a candidate bows out or the election process ends.
After all debts are settled, a candidate is not allowed to use the remaining funds for personal uses which are defined as “a commitment, obligation or expense of any person that would exist irrespective of the candidate’s campaign or responsibilities as a federal officeholder.” In other words, if the expense exists independent of the campaign or being an elected official, campaign funds may not be used. Expenses that are automatically considered personal use include household items, mortgage or rent for a personal residence and salary payments to the candidate's family, unless the family member provides a bona fide service to the campaign and the payment reflects the value for the service in the free market.
The contributions can be used in the following ways: Donations to charities as long as the candidate doesn’t receive compensation from the organizations and the donation is not used by the charity to benefit the candidate, donation of a maximum of $2000 to another presidential candidate, unlimited transfer to a local, state or national political party committee, donations to state and local candidates or transfer to a future election campaign committee of the same candidate. (Bernie Sanders transferred $1.5 million collected from his Senate campaign committee to his presidential committee.)
If you donated more than $2700 to a presidential candidate who dropped out of the race before the general election, you can anticipate a refund. According to the FEC rules, official candidate committees must return any money contributed towards the general election if they do not win the primaries. Since an individual can contribute a maximum of $2700 for each election, primary and general, any more than $2700 would have been allocated to the general.
Contributions, ideally, shouldn’t be lying around. They should be getting spent as quickly as they come in to maximize the chances of the candidate. However, a super PAC can have money left if those at the helm were reluctant or inept. “Where you see a lot of money left over in the super PAC after the candidate drops out, that will probably tell you something about how seriously the super PAC took the race to begin with,” said Robert Kelner, chair of the Election and Political Law Practice Group at the law firm Covington & Burling, speaking to The New York Times.
Super PACs can't co-ordinate with a federal candidate or donate to a national political party committee. They can, however, continue to use the money to support the same candidate in other elections or another federal candidate in future elections. Also, the treasurer of the super PAC is not legally obligated to refund any of the money to donors but often do. Jeb Bush-backing super PAC Right to Rise said they will refund $12 million to donors.
And what about the corporations that contributed so much of that money? A review of the biggest corporate donors found that their stock prices were unaffected after they stopped giving to the parties. The results suggest that those companies did not lose their influence and may have been giving “because they were shaken down by politicians,” said Nathaniel Persily, a professor at Columbia Law School who has studied the law’s impact.
“There is no evidence that stricter campaign finance rules reduce corruption or raise positive assessments of government,” said Kenneth Mayer, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “It seems like such an obvious relationship but it has proven impossible to prove.”
It is not merely an academic question. The Supreme Court has consistently said that only fighting corruption or the appearance of corruption justifies laws that restrict political spending. Other rationales — like leveling the playing field between the haves and have-nots — are not enough.
Defenders of the rules say their case for tighter restrictions on campaign money is obvious to anyone who knows Washington. Private influence-seekers shower big contributions on politicians because they want to gain access and shape policy; they would not spend the money if they got nothing in return.
But even supporters of the rules acknowledge that the benefits can be hard to measure. “I happen to think the campaign finance laws have done some modest good,” said Richard L. Hasen, an expert on political law at the Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “How much good? We may soon find out,” he added, in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s ruling on Thursday in Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission.
Supporters of the restrictions point to Britain to show that governments can police corruption without imperiling free speech. Britain started regulating political spending as far back as 1883 and has tightened the rules steadily ever since.
Those British restrictions would violate the Supreme Court’s view of the First Amendment, yet Britain’s political debates are as robust as they are in the United States.
Opponents of restrictions, on the other hand, point out that Australia barely regulates political money. Individuals and corporations can give without limit. Parties can spend freely. And there is not much disclosure about who gives what to whom. But political corruption has not threatened a vibrant democracy there.
In the United States, studies comparing states like Virginia with scant regulation against those like Wisconsin with strict rules have not found much difference in levels of corruption or public trust, several scholars said. Jeff Milyo, an economist at the University of Missouri, has compared states with strict bans on corporate contributions to political parties against those with no limits at all. “There is just no good evidence that campaign finance laws have any effect on actual corruption,” he said.
The most insistent advocates of the campaign finance laws argue that the benefits are real even if academics can’t measure them. Fred Wertheimer, the dean of campaign finance “reformers,” pointed to the presidential campaign finance system as the best example of success. For five elections beginning in 1976, the presidential candidates of both major parties took public financing and did not receive private campaign contributions. “You can’t prove a negative,” Mr. Wertheimer said, “but in the Carter and Reagan presidencies there were no news stories about campaign contributions influencing presidential decisions.”
By the 2008 election, however, that system had grown obsolete. Candidates could raise far more from private donors, and President Obama became the first major candidate since Richard M. Nixon to win election without public money.
Polls have shown that relatively few people understand or are even aware of the campaign finance rules. Those who are aware of them usually assume that smart donors will be able to steer around the rules. But Mr. Wertheimer said that a cat-and-mouse game of election rule-makers forever trying to catch up with the latest evasions by big money donors was only natural, “part of the ongoing battle to prevent government corruption.”
But some politicians say reformers like Mr. Wertheimer are unrealistic about how money and politicians mix. They cite an old political maxim, attributed in a more vulgar form to the onetime California kingpin Jesse Unruh: If you can’t take their money and vote against them, you don’t belong in politics.Continue reading the main story