The way political campaigns reach voters is changing, and this change is throwing our upcoming presidential election wide open to foreign intervention.
Certainly, there is still much traditional campaigning. Volunteers still use phone banks and door-to-door canvassing to get people out to campaign rallies and influence them to vote.
But in addition, several candidates are appealing directly to national audiences with TV and digital media and doing this on an unprecedented scale.
We do not know if deploying large sums in these new ways will translate into votes. But some candidates are betting that they will.
Former New York City Mayor Michael BloombergMichael Rubens BloombergHouse Majority Whip: DNC shouldn’t change rules for Bloomberg Is Hillary Clinton angling to become vice president? Bloomberg, Steyer spend combined 0 million in fourth quarter MORE did not enter the early primaries. He chose instead to enter only those that occur together on Super Tuesday, March 3 and thereafter.
That does not mean that he is conserving his money for better use later. He isn’t conserving it. He has spent far more than any other Democratic contender.
But he is spending it differently.
Instead of entering early primaries with their uncertain outcomes and the possibility of damaging defeats, he is spending on broadcast and digital media whose message he controls. Despite his late entry into the race, Bloomberg has already spent more than $200 million on advertising, and that is just the beginning.
This approach is increasingly attractive as more and more Americans rely on mobile devices and the internet to obtain information about everything, and everything includes politics. So an emphasis on digital advertising is increasingly natural and effective for those candidates who can afford it.
But there is also a downside to this way of campaigning: This way of spending is available to any person or organization with the means and desire to spend on the election, whether or not that person or organization is American.
Here is one way anyone, American or not, can spend anonymously.
First, set up a political action committee (a Super PAC), which can spend unlimited funds as long as it does not coordinate with a candidate or a political party; second, set up a nonprofit 501(c)(3) or 501(c)(4), which does not have to disclose its donors; and third, through the nonprofit donate to the super PAC, giving it all the money it needs.
To make all of this look legitimate and normal, give the Super PAC an attractive name like “Rebuilding America Step by Step” and similarly name the nonprofit something like “Finding Ways to a Better World.” This makes something that could be very bad sound like something very good.
You may think this is not realistic, that doing this would be easily detected and easily stopped. But that is not the case.
Here is what Ellen Weintraub, then the chair of the Federal Election Commission (FEC), stated in her May 22, 2019 testimony to Congress.
“As we sit here today, a foreign adversary can transfer money to a 501(c) organization that can in turn contribute funds to a super PAC without disclosing the foreign source of money. …
“I have not witnessed a graver danger to our political system than the current threat posed by foreign adversaries set on interfering with U.S. elections. …
“Online political manipulation can take many forms: disinformation, political botnets, fake social media accounts, troll farms, and paid digital advertising.”
And there is much more along these lines in her testimony.
Now consider the scale of these possible foreign interventions. While Bloomberg has enough money to easily outspend most of his rivals for the Democratic nomination, there are entities outside of the U.S. that can easily outspend Bloomberg.
Bloomberg might choose to spend a few billion of his roughly $50 billion fortune on an attempt to become president. But China, which has a few thousand billion U.S. dollars, could choose to outspend Bloomberg, or any American candidate, by a factor of a hundred or more.
While China is the biggest example, there are many nations that have an interest in our election and the capacity to spend significantly. The technology for doing this anonymously exists and can be learned or bought.
These possibilities become even harder to ignore when we consider the extent and the methods already used by Russia in the 2016 election. These actions, detailed in a U.S. Intelligence report, went far beyond the well-publicized hacking of the Democratic National Committee files.
Time will tell what the effect of all of this will be. But we should realize that we are in a new ball game. There are new levels of money available, and new ways to spend it.
There is no easy cure for this situation. Different methods of foreign intervention call for different defenses. The FEC itself is deeply divided over what, if anything, should be done. So at present we are keeping our eyes tight shut and doing almost nothing.
But continuing down this path may move the decision on who is to be our next president out of American hands.
Ralph Gomory is well-known for his mathematical research and his technical leadership. He has been awarded the National Medal of Science. For 20 years he was responsible for IBM’s Research Division, and then for 18 years was the president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. He is currently a research professor at New York University.