It is a widely held belief among political scientists that money wins elections. Typically, the candidate who raises the most money for his or her campaign will win the election. This, however, is not always the case. A recent example that comes to mind is House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s primary election loss to challenger Dave Brat, a college professor. It is widely recognized that Cantor’s campaign funding was significantly more than Brat’s, and, if money always wins the election, why did Cantor lose? Several newspaper and Internet articles have been written to explain why Cantor lost the primary, and I find CNN’s list of “7 Reasons Eric Cantor Lost” to be a very compelling argument (http://www.cnn.com/2014/06/11/politics/why-eric-cantor-lost/)
CNN’s 7 reasons are as follows:
- “Too much political calculation”
- “Too much ambition”
- “The role of the right”
- “… and the left”
- “He was a casualty of a bigger battle”
Having read many chapters in Jeffrey C. Alexander’s book “The Performance of Politics,” many of the points listed in the CNN article can be explained by Alexander’s arguments. There are three points that I find to be directly related to what Alexander argues in his book: “too much political calculation,” “disconnected,” and “turnout/enthusiasm.”
In reference to the first point, “too much calculation,” the CNN article reports, “One thing that’s been lacking throughout Cantor’s career is loyalty among his constituents, says Russell Berman, reporter with The Hill. ‘He has always been seen as somewhat calculating, Berman said, noting Cantor changed his position on immigration in the final weeks of the campaign.” In chapter five, “Working the Binaries,” Alexander suggests that pragmatism is seen as rational and intelligent behavior, while calculated and evasive moves or changes are seen as “deceitful flip-flops” (101). Alexander goes on to say, “According to pragmatism, politically motivated policy shifts can be signs of flexibility, not the abandonment of principle. They are evidence of intelligence, of rationality rather than dogmatism – not deceit and flip-flops” (101). Eric Cantor’s “flip-flopping” and disloyalty caused his constituents and former supporters to view him as calculating and deceitful, which often results in distrusting the candidate—one of the reasons Cantor lost the primary.
A candidate must be careful of how his or her shifting opinions will look to the constituents. For example, in “Working the Binaries,” Alexander describes Obama’s “move to the center” after securing the Democratic presidential nomination. Alexander writes, “Obama pivots from left to center, announcing positions and policies, that, for many of his liberal supporters, seem to undermine the authenticity of his heroic performance and the democratic character of his campaign” (97). Some of the Obama supporters even felt like he lied to them after he started announcing more center and moderate policies, rather than the left-winged policies that landed him the nomination. However, his notion of disillusionment with Obama changed when he announced he would reject public campaign financing, even though he previously embraced and supported it. It was not the announcement that caused constituents to see him as flexible and reasonable, it was the way in which he announced it and the reasons he gave for the announcement—it was his performance. Alexander writes,
“He offers the counter intuitive claim that abandoning public financing actually brings him more closely into alignment with the positive side of democratic discourse. If he has abandoned his earlier promise, it has been to better defend civil society against the secretive and manipulative forces of his Republican opponents, who are ‘masters at gaming the system and will spend millions smearing’ him whether he accepts public funds or not.”
Instead seeming calculated or evasive by rejecting public financing that he previously embraced, Obama presents himself as being flexible, sincere, principled, and reasonable—arguing that he will increase his private donations to better arm himself against Republican attacks. The decision to reject public financing is seen as an honest move by Obama, whereas when McCain moves to the center, he also moves back to the right—the far-right, some say. McCain, like Eric Cantor, was seen as being calculated and too ideological. Alexander writes in reference to McCain’s presidential nomination, “This time around, what distinguishes him from his Republican opponents has nothing to do with domestic issues and everything to do with his earlier martial exploits, and his militant calls for even more aggression to be shown in the nation’s foreign policy today” (105). “McCain opened up a wide space between his character and the president’s, to the point of fanning speculation during this post-2000 period that he might actually switch political sides,” Alexander writes (104,105). McCain’s “too-right” or “far-right” ideology was not seen as being flexible enough or pragmatic, and many thought it was “flip-floppy” –one of the reasons that many believe led to his loss in 2008.
The third point and the fourth points the CNN article makes, which are “disconnected” and “turnout/enthusiasm suggests that Eric Cantor “failed Politics 101, which is to keep in touch with your district,” and “Brat’s campaign didn’t come close to matching Cantor’s deep pockets, but Brat made up for the fundraising shortfall by rallying his staunchest supporters.” These two points directly relate to Alexander’s argument in chapter 3, “Spirit of the Ground Game.” On page 41, Alexander defines “ground game” as being,
“Trained organizers meeting and speaking with citizen audiences in person, in their homes or in public places; sometimes registering them; keeping track of those who are on their side; staying in touch throughout the campaign; checking on Election Day to see whether they have voted, and if not, making sure they get to the polls before closing”
Essentially, being physically present and organized at the grassroots level of your campaign is what the ground game is all about. The candidate himself/herself does not have to be physically present, but a group of well-trained and enthusiastic organizers must be present in order to rally support. The CNN article reports that even though “Brat’s campaign didn’t come close to matching Cantor’s deep pockets, “money can’t buy enthusiasm.” In the very beginning of chapter three, Alexander suggests that most people would argue that the purse strings control the campaign and, as a result, the victory (39). Throughout chapter three, Alexander challenges that widely held belief. Specifically on pages 40 and 41, Alexander writes,
“The chance that money actually constitutes the ‘base’ for politics is further diminished when we consider that access to money is usually not a first- but a second-order cause. In democratic politics, access to financing over the long run depends on energy, on performative fusion, and on ritual…Symbolic power attracts money, which then facilitates the production of more symbolic force in return.”
Alexander argues that campaign financing must start with a message that rallies support for a cause. It is not money that wins the election—it is money that buys access to the creating the powerful symbols that make people want to believe in and distribute to other people. Money and victory are not directly related. There is a relationship, but Alexander suggests that there is an intervening variable between money and relationship, which is that money allows candidates the opportunities to create and distribute the symbols and performance necessary to win elections.
People need to be connected with on a personal level that will make them want to believe in a candidates message, support that candidate, and encourage others to support that candidate, as well. After the relationship with voters has been established, that is when the money starts flowing in. Eric Cantor may have had a well-established penny bank during his campaign, but he failed to rally the support from voters that was necessary to win the election.