For Americans who do not want “big money” to sway presidential elections, the 2016 contest was one for hope. Hillary Clinton raised twice as much as Donald Trump in campaign money – much of it from wealthy donors. She had nearly six times as many campaign workers on the payroll. Her TV ads far outnumbered Mr. Trump’s over the course of the campaign. And yet Mrs. Clinton lost the election.
Many reasons account for Trump’s victory and Clinton’s defeat – their promises, character, experience, etc. But unlike most recent presidential elections, money was not a deciding factor, even though the presidential candidates altogether raised $1.3 billion.
This puts a dent in the idea that elections can be bought. And it opens the possibility that American voters are more savvy than political operatives might think in being able to judge candidates and their messages despite a barrage of ad campaigns backed by large campaign war chests.
Much can still be done to rein in the influence of money in politics, especially in races for Congress. But unlike a dictatorship, a democracy must always rely on its citizens being responsible for their thoughts and actions. If they alone are duped by a leader, they must pay the price. Government cannot police political ads, either in their reach or for their honesty. Voters are their own first defense against lies and half-truths.
Trump claims he made up for having less money by his extensive use of social media, such as Twitter and Facebook. Barack Obama also relied heavily on the internet to win in 2008. This digital outreach helped both of them reach voters free of charge, bypassing the traditional – and expensive – media.
Special interest groups that benefit from government support and then use a portion of that benefit to bankroll candidates should take note. Voters are showing more independence of thought and a greater discernment toward candidates, at least at the presidential level. Money still talks in politics. But voters may now be better listeners.