How The Campaign Finance System Has Changed To Benefit The Wealthy The American system of financing campaigns is changing, as post-Watergate reforms crumble beneath a crush of unregulated money.

How The Campaign Finance System Has Changed To Benefit The Wealthy

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Here's a statistic to chew on as congressional candidates chase money for midterm elections. This stat is from 2016. That year, individual donors gave or spent $5 billion and half of that came from 19,000 people - about the population of Johnstown, Pa. While small donors are giving more than ever, the campaign finance system has changed dramatically to benefit the wealthy. NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: In July 2015, presidential hopeful Rick Perry ripped one of his rivals in a speech.


RICK PERRY: A barking carnival act that can best be described as Trumpism.

OVERBY: Perry's campaign ended less than two months later. Now he's President Trump's energy secretary. But the setting for his speech - he was at a forum paid for by a friendly superPAC - that's something with staying power. Perry was starved for cash. The law caps contributions to candidates at $2,700. The superPAC that staged the speech got most of its money from one or two billionaires.

NATHANIEL PERSILY: SuperPACs, as a vehicle for individual giving - their significance cannot be overstated.

OVERBY: Nate Persily is a law professor at Stanford Law School. He spearheaded a two-year bipartisan project to examine the campaign finance system and how it's coming apart. The biggest factor - the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling in 2010 and other court decisions that followed. One result is superPACs, groups that are supposed to be independent of a candidate's campaign; independent, but they can interact. Take Rick Perry's speech.

BOB BAUER: Candidates under federal law may actually appear at superPAC events.

OVERBY: Bob Bauer is a leading Democratic lawyer who worked on the report. The law says a campaign and superPAC cannot coordinate, but that doesn't include speeches.

BAUER: So, you know, it's a bit of a lawyer's festival, as you can imagine.

OVERBY: The basic campaign finance laws came out of the Watergate scandal of the 1970s.

BAUER: The Watergate reforms held up as long as they could hold up.

OVERBY: They were intended to break the influence of big interests.

BEN GINSBERG: And sort of the exact opposite is the situation on the ground right now.

OVERBY: That's Ben Ginsberg, a go-to Republican lawyer who worked with Bauer and Persily on the report. Here's the issue - a millionaire superPAC can plunge right into a campaign but candidates usually need time.

GINSBERG: The reality of candidate fundraising is they get rich at the end.

OVERBY: But for much of the campaign...

GINSBERG: Candidates and what they want to say about a particular issue are completely outgunned by outside groups that they don't control.

OVERBY: Still, even in this age of superPACs, small money sometimes looms large.


BERNIE SANDERS: Anybody here know what the average contribution is?

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Twenty-seven dollars.

SANDERS: That's right - $27.

OVERBY: Bernie Sanders based his whole presidential run on small donors. But the champion of small contributions is President Trump. All those Make America Great Again caps and campaign tchotchkes helped raise a record-setting $239 million from small donors. That's according to the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute. The political parties, too, are affected by this new campaign finance system. Ginsberg cited the spending power of a superPAC called the Congressional Leadership Fund.

GINSBERG: The superPAC closely associated with House Republicans has more offices on the ground in individual states than the Republican National Committee does and the National Republican Congressional Committee combined.

OVERBY: The bottom line - while small donors flock to support their favorite candidates, the new campaign finance system offers big donors new places to give even more money than before. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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