There is a lot of rhetoric surrounding how politicians in the US obtain money for their campaigns. I am wondering why it is necessary for politicians to have any money for their campaigns, small money, big money, their own money, etc etc. It seems that a possible solution is to host a few debates, and to allot each candidate e.g. a webpage on a government site on which they can expound their views on X,Y and Z.

Why can't we simply disallow campaigning altogether? What would be the challenges in implementing such a solution?

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    – Philipp
    Commented Mar 14, 2019 at 16:13

7 Answers 7


While one can imagine an ideal world in which the political landscape is dominated by a "pull" paradigm (voters actively go out to find the information on the candidates), in the real world it's dominated by the "push" paradigm (voters passively receive information given to them). If you're asking why we can't have the first instead of the second, well, that's not what's happened. The fact that we don't already have that shows that it's just against human nature. One can call it laziness, or rational ignorance, but whatever you call it, that's just not how humans naturally behave. A government website where candidates can put up their platform simply can't compete with daily bombardment of messages regarding current events. Even if some voters visit the site (and most won't), they're not going to come back to it day after to day to see commentary on the campaign as it unfolds. It's the same reason why companies run ads, rather than just putting up a website telling people how great their product is, and then sitting back and waiting for people to visit.

If you're suggesting that we force campaigns to be run that way, consider: What is campaigning? It's going around telling people why they should vote for you. In other words, it's speech. Which is protected by the constitution. There are some that argue that it's money, not speech, that is being regulated, but when you prohibit people from spending money on speech, you're regulating speech. Campaigning can be categorized into four main types:

  1. Self-financing: A candidate uses their own money to fund their campaign.

  2. Independent expenditures: Non-candidates use money to fund a campaign that is separate from the candidate. The candidate does not have any access or influence over the funds.

  3. Media Coverage: Candidates can get exposure by getting the media (and this includes not only "establishment" outlets such as TV news and newspapers, but also social media) to give them attention.

  4. Contributions to candidates: People give money to a candidate, and the candidate decides how to spend it.

The Supreme Court has found that the first three types are constitutionally protected [1]. The restrictions on the fourth are allowed, but eliminating contributions to candidates would just leave self-financing, independent expenditures, and the media as the only allowable campaigning methods. The first obviously favors wealthy candidates, the second means that campaigns are not accountable to the candidates (they are legally required to not be accountable), and the third allows large media corporations to dominate elections, as well as rewarding divisive behavior (the best way to get air time is to say something controversial). Banning contributions to candidates doesn't take money out of politics, it just gives more of an advantage to those who can pay for their own campaigns, have proxies act on their behalf, and/or manipulate the media.

[1] Because this has involved striking down laws that prohibit speech based on how much money is spent on that speech, is it often characterized as the Supreme Court saying that money is speech. The Court has not said that money is speech, it has said that regulations on how much money can be spent on speech is regulation on speech, which is quite different. If there were a law that says that no one is allowed to spend more than $100 per year on firearms, that would clearly be a law regulating firearms, and acknowledging that fact would not be saying "money is guns".

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    @ErinB I've edited my question to address that nonsense. Commented Mar 14, 2019 at 15:12
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    @Scott It's difficult to frame a position that is inherently propaganda in a neutral way. Commented Mar 14, 2019 at 17:13
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    I don't really understand the argument here, your claim seems to be that by eliminating (4) we would boost the other 3 and that would be a bad thing. But all of your points are already true. The current political system favors wealthy candidates (with wealthy connections who can donate a lot) and is completely dominated by major media corporations who basically determine who can run for president by controlling who can participate in national debates. This answer doesn't consider any alternative public financing options. All of the listed areas could be reformed drastically
    – Kai
    Commented Mar 15, 2019 at 2:25
  • @Kai: I think you're reading a bit too much into it. The argument is more along the lines of "You can't ban #1-3, and banning #4 in isolation isn't particularly useful (and may be outright harmful), so this idea is doomed to failure."
    – Kevin
    Commented Mar 15, 2019 at 3:48
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    And yet the US allows many legal restrictions on speech. Reading out a classified document in public is prohibited. Shouting "fire" in a crowded theatre is prohibited. Libel is prohibited. It is thus clear that free speech may be restricted if it is very prejudicial to the public good, which is arguably true for allowing high spending on political campaigning.
    – Mike Scott
    Commented Mar 15, 2019 at 12:40

By strict interpretations of this rule, you end up as an effective one-party state very quickly.

What counts as "campaigning" is the big question. Firstly, a lot of places have ballot signature requirements - you have to get N people to sign a piece of paper in order to be a candidate. Does that count as "campaigning"? If so, then suddenly you can't have any candidates!

Are people allowed to mention that they're running as a candidate? Are they allowed to wear party colours or other identification? Are they allowed to give interviews to the press?

Are third parties who somehow find out about the election allowed to campaign on behalf of candidates? Or have you just banned people talking about it at the office watercooler?

Are political parties allowed at all in your scenario? What about their internal democratic processes of choosing a leader or candidates?

Are turnout-improving processes (canvassing and "knocking up") allowed?

What about pre-existing celebrities?

Without all this lot, you end up with a strange world where the news reports that you're having an election, but you can't see or name any of the candidates, and this is the first anyone's heard of them, other than the incumbent. Perhaps someone presses an illegal flyer into your hand and runs away quickly.

(There are plenty of discussions to be had about campaigning and finance, but this is not something to ban altogether!)

  • Mostly, my question was about the money spent on campaigning, and not the speech itself. @Accumulation makes a solid point that the two are inseparable.
    – Him
    Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 17:17
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    @Scott any time spent on any campaign activities is money spent, as you could have spent that time doing something else that generates an income. If I as a volunteer print flyers and hand them out on a day I took off from work for the purpose, that's money I spent on both the flyers and the time (I could have spent the day doing something else, either generating income for myself or others, after all).
    – jwenting
    Commented Mar 14, 2019 at 5:40
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    @jwenting: The difference is a CEO's time and a janitor's time contributions would like be far more comparable than their monetary contributions.
    – user541686
    Commented Mar 15, 2019 at 10:00

Why can't we simply disallow campaigning altogether?

From the First Amendment of the US Constitution:

Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech...

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    Making it illegal, is illegal, +1. Not that's ever stopped anyone from doing anything anyway.
    – Mazura
    Commented Mar 14, 2019 at 3:07
  • Of course it is illegal to shout "fire" in a crowded theater, and sometimes to mention to a small business owner that it would be a shame if the shop burned down. If campaigning in a polling station can be prohibited, why not campaigning within 100 miles of a polling station, within a year of the poll? The First Amendment is not holy writ, it was made by people and must be interpreted by people. Not banning campaigns sounds reasonable to me, but just citing the First Amendment is not enough.
    – o.m.
    Commented Mar 15, 2019 at 17:19

Considerations around freedom of speech would be the biggest obstacle. Obviously, the main consideration here is the Citizens United vs. FEC Supreme Court decision. Since this decision states that corporations, unions, and non-profit organizations may spend as much as they want on political advertisements, any attempt to restrict campaigning by a non-profit group would fall afoul of this immediately.

However, older and broader precedents also come into play. Restricting campaigning would require preventing the candidate from attending gatherings of their supporters, such as rallies, likely violating the free assembly provision of the First Amendment of the US Constitution. It would also prevent them from spending their own money on advertising, which was allowed before Citizens United, e.g. under Buckley. Hypothetically, such a prohibition could even prohibit a politician stating their political views on their own personal blog.

There are also some pragmatic issues with the particular implementation you're proposing that would make it difficult. The government would also need to provide money for travel and lodging at the debates, to replace the lost funding from campaigns.


How would you enforce it, and where would you draw the line?

Quite apart from the freedom of expression issue, which makes it illegal to restrict people from expressing their support for one political party or another, there's the very definition of the matter.

If I donate time to a campaign rather than money, effectively I am indeed funding that campaign.

Ditto if say a bus company donates vehicles, or even rents them out at a discount from normal market prices.

The politician himself who goes around holding rallies and press events is donating his time, therefore financing the campaign.

If those rallies require payment to get in, that's payment to the campaign as well.

Etc. etc. etc.

If you ban all contributions to political campaigns you end up without the possibility for people to run for office at all, meaning no more politicians.

Oh wait, that'd not be such a bad thing ;)

But seriously: you'd end up with a system where nobody except those already in power and with the means to control the media directly can determine who gets into power as nobody else will be able to get his opinions heard, let alone let it be known they're interested in holding political office.


Apart from what other people have pointed out about freedom of speech, such a move would almost certainly heavily favor incumbents. Incumbents have the advantage of already being known to the electorate and already having been voted into office in the past; as such, it would be very difficult to unseat a sitting elected official if people aren't even allowed to campaign against them.

It seems that a possible solution is to host a few debates, and to allot each candidate e.g. a webpage on a government site on which they can expound their views on X,Y and Z.

This is problematic. Effectively, you have a situation where the government (which is run by the very people that new candidates are presumably running against in the first place) gets to pick and choose when, where, and how the candidates running against them are allowed to campaign. Unsurprisingly, in countries with state-run media, sitting Presidents will routinely ban their opponents from advertising.

  • yup, In the latest election campain in the Netherlands we've even had several politicians of the established parties claiming that anyone rooting for one of the opposition parties is mentally insane and should be barred from voting...
    – jwenting
    Commented Mar 22, 2019 at 5:41

Because, as far as we know, it doesn't scale.

Your perfect world is actually not that different from how campaigns are conducted at the local level: it's not that uncommon for e.g. city council candidates to canvas door-to-door personally. If I want to know who to vote for I turn to the internet, the most visible media that I passively receive are yard signs and junk mail (and almost all of that is related to state and national level candidates anyway).

That form of "campaigning" has been out-competed at the national level, and to a lesser extent at the state level, by what you see now: broadcast media. Even Donald Trump and Barack Obama, who won in no small part thanks to internet presence, had a substantial broadcast media presence.

  • "city council candidates to canvas door-to-door personally" without anyone else doing anything, no signs, no flyers, no buttons, etc? How small is this city? that's crazy
    – user21878
    Commented Mar 14, 2019 at 21:39
  • @user21878 signs? buttons? flyers? sure. But no TV commercials. Why is it crazy for candidates to canvas? In local elections there are frequently < 10k votes cast. Swinging a couple of hundred by canvasing could net you 2 percentage points. Commented Mar 15, 2019 at 1:57
  • i was simply pointing out that signs buttons and flyers cost money, which seems to contradict your point about no campaign financing for city council candidates
    – user21878
    Commented Mar 15, 2019 at 2:58
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    @user21878 fair, depends on the municipality. I doubt any candidate gets away with spending literally no money as the OP suggests but I don't doubt that a lot of local campaigns are run on < $1000. The real cost is the opportunity/time cost. Commented Mar 15, 2019 at 11:35
  • i agree with that.
    – user21878
    Commented Mar 15, 2019 at 14:24

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