Rich Democrats can't win the White House on ads alone

A billionaire in his shirtsleeves and Dockers, gyrating on stage to a late '90s gangsta-rap tune, complete with misogynistic lyrics and pulsating, syncopating production.  Rarely has there been such a pat demonstration of the scourge of "money in politics."

Tom Steyer made a midnight-hour pitch to black Democratic voters in South Carolina by appearing at Allen University, a federally designated "historically black university," with rapper Juvenile of the short-lived supergroup the Hot Boys.  In his patented gules-dominant tartan tie, Steyer awkwardly gamboled in front of a half-empty gym to the Y2K-era hit.  The display was cringey enough for a 62-year-old white guy.  But Steyer, being a Yale man and MBA-holder, made it all the more inglorious, even emetic.  The desperate jiving did not become the former hedge-fund manager who can probably still recite "Bright College Years" word for word.

Steyer's "appropriation," to borrow the galling leftist term, of ghetto culture showed the fathomless depths some presidential hopefuls sink to for attention.  Being of the 1%, Steyer can't convincingly tell straitened blacks he feels their pain.  But he can pay a princely sum to entertain them during his presidential pitch with an entr'acte of twenty-year-old Top 40 hits.

Surprisingly or unsurprisingly, depending on your comfort level with big money greasing the political wheel, the ignominious gesture failed to pay off.  For perhaps the first time in his charmed life, Steyer bet wrongly.  For the price of a Victorian country pile, he got a brass farthing's worth of electoral value.  Steyer captured third place in a heavily black state, then promptly dropped out.  The two delegates he won cost over $20 million.  Joe Biden spent a fraction of that for the coveted first prize, redounding impressively in time for the biggest contests of the campaign season.

The former V.P. heads into Super Tuesday in a near tie for delegates with Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, who has made a political point of eschewing big-dollar donors.  Pete Buttigieg, the out-of-nowhere Midwestern mayor, has also taken a powder from the race, despite his aggressive courting of the in-clover class.

The absenting from the field of two moneyed candidates leaves it, for all intents and purposes, a three-way race — that is, if Michael Bloomberg's billions can buy him any standing in the dozen or so Super Tuesday races.  As polling stands now, the former Big Apple mayor's deluge of slick advertisements may not move the needle enough to make him a viable contender.  His campaign is already tempering expectations.  Bloomberg 2020 has spent over $200 million only to be polling nationally in third place.  Popular data-cruncher Nate Silver says "Bloomberg is in quite a lot of trouble" as his "national polls have stalled out or begun to reverse themselves."

Without any definite victory on Tuesday, Bloomberg will find it difficult to maintain that he's a serious candidate with a real chance of winning the nomination, let alone beat Donald Trump.

That the Democratic primary is being won by popular candidates rather than those with fat wallets is not unexpected.  Donald Trump prevailed in his improbable presidential bid despite being outspent by Hillary Clinton by a ratio of 2:1.  What the Trump campaign did spend, it spent strategically, taking advantage of potent social media platforms that had a low cost of entry and high yield of exposure.

The way the left still regards money in politics, however, you'd think every presidential election were between Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffett, with each burying less flush competition under mountains of paper, effectively gagging them by buying up bandwidth in every imaginable publicity avenue.  The Supreme Court case Citizens United, which lifted many financial limits on campaign donations, is regarded in certain progressive circles as morally aberrant as Dred Scott v. Sandford

Yet, since Citizens was decided, none of the dystopian predictions about America becoming an undemocratic oligarchical state has come to pass.  Two billionaires just failed to wedge their way into a major political party by expending much of their personal fortune.  Our current president, though a billionaire, was outmatched monetarily in both his primary and general campaign.

For all of America's consumeristic impulses, voters aren't easily convinced with expensive and flashy advertisements.  They quaintly believe in the candidate with the best ideas, or most inspiring vision, for the country.  Or, at a minimum, they identify with a party platform and vote based on its first principles — and even that isn't always a given.  Being inundated with campaign commercials during Dancing with the Stars rarely changes their minds.  Neither do groveling displays of contrived hipness with has-been hip-hop stars.

The American voter still resists algorithmic impersonation; he remains an enigmatic and surprising creature.  Without that humane part of our larger character, res publica would resemble another shopping mall, and the White House and Congress would be dominated by the Forbes 400.

Heaven help us if we sell our political life to highest bidder.

Image: Gage Skidmore via Flickr.

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