In today’s charged political climate there are more questions than answers and there is one in particular that continues to make the rounds and cause debate. The question of soft money contributions is often justified since candidates can extend their public influence with greater ease when properly funded by a variety of groups. In this article, we will take a look at how soft money contributions work, how they differ from hard money contributions and how these ultimately affect voters.

Soft money contributions have been a part of American politics since the 1988 presidential election when parties took notice of a “loophole” by the Federal Election Commission that stated 10 years prior that contributions were regulated only when given to political campaigns and not to “party activities” or “party building” projects. As one example, the ruling started the now common practice of political candidates holding dinners and events that are not considered campaign events. At these events, invitees may attend and pay for… well… dinner. This has been a heated point of debate in political circles for decades now.

Soft Money vs. Hard Money

To understand why soft money is such a debated topic in politics it is important to know the difference between soft money and hard money and how these two compare to one another and why one is considered far more dangerous to democracy than the other. Nothing is simple in politics. This subject is no exception and has been carefully analyzed for years. There has been an increased focus on this practice in the last couple of election cycles.

Hard Money

Hard money is any contribution to a political candidate or political party during an election year. Hard money is regulated by the Federal Election Commission, taxed and reported to the government. Hard money is easy to track and can help determine how much a campaign is spending and gaining from donors towards their efforts. The more money that a candidate receives the more that can be spent on television ads, rallies, signs and more. Everything is reported and nothing here is amiss.

Soft Money

Soft money is problematic as it does not fall under the Federal Election Commission’s 1978 ruling and is difficult to track if not outright impossible. Soft money consists of the contributions given to a candidate’s political campaign through “party building” activities which may include party dinners, party gatherings, TV ads, and events that are not reported as part of the campaign trail. These events claim no attendee is being influenced to vote for any particular candidate and therefore any contribution, regardless of how big or small, is not considered a political one. Both major U.S. parties take full advantage of soft money.

Lack of Regulation

The Federal Election Commission has not always done the best job at regulating either type of contributions. While senators in the past have proposed laws to tighten campaign financing regulations, these attempts have been unsuccessful. Most voters would like to see a complete overhaul of the system but at the moment that does not seem realistic. There are factors that are slowly bringing about change to this debate but there will always be those looking to find a way around any regulatory legislation. Soft money affects you as a voter more than you think and recent events have shown just that.

Soft Money in Elections Today

Today, soft money is used much as it has been since its inception but in a modernized and perhaps less obvious way. Senator John McCain proposed a law that would clamp down on soft money contributions and this law passed in 2002. However, the cycle continued despite tighter regulations that limited the amount of money that deep-pocketed donors could provide to candidates. Both parties have found several ways to continue receiving unregulated contributions, and this is increasingly alarming to voters.

Joint Fundraisers

Joint fundraisers have been around for quite some time now but recently got a boost when the Supreme Court eliminated some contribution limits in 2014 due to the McCutcheon v Federal Election Commission case. The limitations that were lifted have since allowed contributors to funnel money through the joint fundraiser to smaller organizations that then transfer the money to a party’s national committee, and ultimately to a chosen candidate. This method has been condemned as a type of money laundering but despite being viewed as unethical by many, it is still considered perfectly legal. These types of fundraisers were heavily used during the 2016 election.


The 2016 election saw both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump using soft money for many of the political ads they ran both on television, social media and elsewhere. There were several ads paid for by soft money particularly towards the end of the race. The McCutcheon case got rid of several caps that allowed both candidates to court wealthy donors and steered them toward joint fundraisers. The money is difficult to track, but it is estimated to be in the millions of dollars for both candidates.

Social Media and Beyond

The age of social media has brought along a great variety of ways in which individuals can funnel contributions to candidates. Contributions of this nature are rarely tracked by the Federal Election Commission and the Federal Government. Barack Obama showcased this both in 2008 and 2012 by raising over one billion dollars through social media for both campaigns. The kind of donation numbers that are pouring out of social media sites are staggering. As technology moves forward, regulations are becoming increasingly outdated.

How Election Funding Affects Voters

You may wonder… If both parties take advantage of soft money contributions, what is the big deal? Not only is a lack of federal oversight an issue but with money comes influence and power. That amount of influence on state and national level politicians should be worrisome to voters. Contributions can skyrocket to the millions of dollars. The movers and shakers of the world are thrilled to get a piece of the cake if their respective candidate wins. This is a dangerous foundation to the political structure that extends far beyond our borders.

Power and Influence

Anyone can contribute to any political candidate they prefer, but few could say they could influence a candidate to do their bidding while in office. One of the terrifying aspects of soft money contributions is that the wealthiest donors can become heavily influential in the administration of an elected official. This is alarming to voters for good reason as it diminishes democracy and continues the cycle of large corporations having a strong influence in elections.

Across the Globe

You may think soft money contributions are limited to within the United States but this would be incorrect. The United States is the most powerful and influential country in the world today and everyone wants to have influence with the most powerful people in our nation’s capital. The 2016 elections showed that outside powers are looking to influence the course of the elections in their favor at any cost. Influence may come through cyber attacks or carefully placed contributions to joint fundraisers and “charities.”

“Educating” the Masses

There are 119.6 million TV homes in the United States and parties understand the power television ads have on voters. The more ads that a party runs the more efficiently they can send their message across an increasingly divided population. All ads are not created (or should we say paid for) equally. If an ad is telling you directly to vote for a candidate, then it must be paid for with hard money that is easily traceable. An ad that smears a candidate or paints him or her in a bad light, and then includes a call to action to vote, without mentioning a candidate is considered “party building” and can be paid for with soft money.

Keeping Track

The fact that soft money is not tracked the same way as hard money also affects voters. When information is not available to the wider population about how much a party is receiving, and from whom, that becomes worrisome. When soft money is involved, the influences over a candidate are not transparent and campaign promises may not be what they seem. This lack of accountability often worries voters every election cycle, and for good reason.

What the Future Holds

There may be a small-donor revolution on the horizon as voters become increasingly wary of the influence of corporations on national elections. The election fundraising cycle and all its intricacies are not new but, in an age of readily available information, voters are becoming aware. The government is feeling the pressure at both the state and federal levels to tighten laws as more progressive-minded individuals speak out against soft money.


We may not see a complete overhaul of the campaign fundraising system any time soon but the battle to keep soft money contributions out of politics continues. Small donors can make a difference by using today’s technologies to overwhelm federal elections with contributions that diminish the power of large corporations and wealthy influencers. The time for change is here, the means and tools are available, and the voice of the people has never been louder.

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