Like many people of my ideological persuasion I have been quite critical of the Citizens United decision that allows essentially unlimited electioneering – namely spending on advertising – by non-campaign or -candidate groups. It has unarguably turned campaign finance, which was approaching Thunderdome before Citizens, into something at or perhaps even beyond Thunderdome. No one to the left of Mitch McConnell thinks this is a good development and we'll no doubt be seeing a $10 billion plus presidential election in 2012.

That said, I have been increasingly interested (in the context of my day job) in the question of what all of this money buys in elections. And the more I reflect upon and study the issue, the more convinced I become that the money would be just as productively used by throwing it on a raging bonfire.

I will not subject you to an extended review of the political science literature on the role of money in elections. Suffice it to say for these purposes that money is a necessary component of winning elections. Yet research also argues quite persuasively that money can't buy an election. So basically candidates need some non-zero amount of money but there is a threshold beyond which additional money accomplishes little to nothing.

Money buys useful things in elections. Any candidate for a statewide office (Senate, Governor, etc.) or legislative seat needs a certain amount of money to have a realistic shot at winning. That amount varies by the size and importance of the race, but the basic necessities vary little among offices: competent professional staff (campaign manager, volunteer coordinator, etc.), administrative and logistical costs, advertising, dealing with the media, and so on. These are the basics for any remotely Serious Congressional campaign or whatever. Beyond the nuts and bolts of office space, yard signs, staffers, mailers & phone banks, and the other basic costs of maintaining a campaign organization, the vast majority of additional money is spent on advertising. For non-campaign groups – the kind of independent organizations affected by Citizens United – the only relevant costs are advertising and some mobilization (GOTV) stuff.

Accordingly, asking whether money matters is essentially asking if advertising matters. Much like money, advertising has a threshold beyond which its marginal effects are indistinguishable from zero. There are different schools of thought on this issue, but my personal bias favors the argument that the threshold is very, very low. Advertising is good for name recognition and not much else. As you sit through the barrage of TV commercials for this year's candidates, ask yourself who is actually persuaded by any of this crap. Individuals' own preferences and partisan predispositions are an effective screen; in other words, any message from the opposite party is heavily discounted if not ignored altogether. If you're a Republican, you're going to tell yourself that anything in the Democrats' commercials is untrue and untrustworthy anyway.

But true independent/undecided voters could be persuaded, you say. Even if we accept the shaky premise that they will be persuaded by something as clearly lacking in credibility as a TV commercial, what does seeing the commercial 500 times accomplish that seeing it 10 times would not? I can accept that some voters – some – might legitimately be influenced by advertising no matter how ridiculous the commercials appear to the rest of us. But it is not at all clear that the ads are effective enough (or sufficiently effective with a sufficiently large portion of the electorate) to make any real difference.

Money matters. If nothing else it is a sign of legitimacy that scares away potential challengers and ensures that a candidate can do the bare minimum required to mount a campaign that could be considered serious. But it becomes difficult to get worked up about obscene levels of spending in our elections so much of it is spent on advertising, the marginal effects of which are extremely small beyond creating name recognition. In short, I am not convinced that George Soros or Tea Party USA spending half a billion dollars on commercials really has any impact on elections. Most of us don't pay any attention to them. For those who do, does seeing the same ad a few hundred additional times really matter?

The issue of campaign spending in a post-Citizens United world isn't really one of "buying" elections but of spending unfathomably large sums of money on the very slim odds that the very small group of voters who are persuaded by seeing a commercial a thousand times will be the deciding factor in a given race. I struggle to think of a less useful way to spend so much money.

26 thoughts on “TOSS IT ON THE BONFIRE”

  • I have some disagreement with with your statements on this issue. I do agree that individual candidates can be helped only to a certain level before epistemic closure blunts the effect of avertising –but I think it's very important on issues, such as health care and global warming, to name a few.

    Consistent pounding of an untruth (think "clean coal") can create a climate of opinion that influences public debate, and can put mainstream candidates on the defensive over perfectly reasonable scientific, socio-economic, or intellectual positions. We live in an era of global warming deniers, persons ignorant of economic trends who are continually bombarded by paid propaganda to vote against their interests. The current Tea Party reaction to such thing as health care reform underscore this trend.

    So yes, there is a point of diminishing returns for individual candidates, but no, there is no diminution in moneyed misdirection and denial.

  • I agree with Steve (above). I think the main goal is to ensure that the politician is elected into office where he/she will forward the agenda & propaganda of the corporate benefactor, regardless of what the politician's constituents want/need.

  • I agree with the "campaign money buys favors" premise. (Although it also appears to buy intangibles, such as "serious" news coverage of the ads and candidates.)

    It's always been a disappointment to me that our pols can be bought this way, and so cheaply. A couple hundred thousand in the campaign coffers and all the corporate outings you can stand? That's what it takes? I mean, it almost (but not really) makes you long for more obvious and extravagant corruption, hookers and coke and private jets sort of thing, you know, more "honest" graft.

  • The concern about unlimited corporate campaign financing is not that the elections will be bought (that doesn't matter anyway, as so much of the country votes on electronic voting machines that are so easily tampered with that elections are moot) but that the *politicians themselves* will be bought.

    BP spending, say, three billion dollars on Candidate X won't do much more to help him get elected in real terms. But if/when Candidate X *does* get elected?

    You can bet your ass BP is going to remind him that he essentially owes them three billion dollars when he's deciding on oil industry legislation.

    Everything before that is merely formality. Voting machines, remember, have been hacked into Pac-Man machines without ever touching the tamper-evident seals. Altering vote counts is trivial in comparison

  • I was involved in organizing a nearly seven-year campaign over an issue that was not political per se, but had many political dimensions. They spent $58 million; we spent about $2.3 million, nearly a 20-to-1 ratio.

    We prevailed. But it wasn't easy, and it would not have been such a long and arduous slog if the other side hadn't had unlimited resources.

    Our opponent, a major multinational, had unlimited resources to spend: on lobbyists, experts-for-hire, on lawyers, on political donations, on sweeteners for churches and community groups, for hoe-downs with free food and rides and t-shirts, for saturation mailings in a five-county area, for billboards, for bus rides to public hearings, for signs and stickers and buttons, for push-polls, for "host agreements" with local government, for media relations, and most of all for non-stop radio and TV ads.

    I agree with Ed that there comes a point where the marginal utility of spending even more money starts to glide down toward an asymptote of zero — especially if the side with unlimited funds isn't very good at what they do. If your ads suck, taking out even more ads hurts rather than helps.

    But having loads more money than the other side is a major advantage in at least three key ways:

    1. You don't have to make tough choices about spending. You can send poll-watchers and election lawyers to every precinct, not just the ones you suspect may pose the biggest problem. You can contact every voter, not just those you hope are most likely prospects. You can advertise in every medium, on every station, not have to stretch your message thin. There is of course the pitfall of excess promotion backfiring by annoying it's targets., but that's much more easily solved than not having adequate funds to do the basics.

    2. You can start your campaign early, run at full steam the entire time, and come back for second and third tries in future cycles.

    3. You can delegate far more of the rote tasks to hirees, while letting your top people focus on the most challenging and creative aspects of the campaign — rather than having your top people also having to spend time vacuuming the office and going out to buy clipboards..

    Essentially what I'm saying is having plenty of funds is a very nice "problem" to have. It's a luxury few upstart candidates or parties or groups ever enjoy. If you really can't spend it all, you can always donate the excess to someone like-minded who isn't so flush.

    The fortunate thing is that those with zillions to spend on campaigns tend to be reall stupid about how they throw this money around, commissioning hamhanded ads and hiring consultants without a clue how to use money to mobilize boots on the ground. Here's going they never figure it out.

  • If all these special interests are dumping billions of dollars into the economy for little productive purpose, could we consider that a form of stimulus spending?

  • "The fortunate thing is that those with zillions to spend on campaigns tend to be real stupid about how they throw this money around, commissioning hamhanded ads and hiring consultants without a clue how to use money to mobilize boots on the ground. Here's hoping they never figure it out."

    Or that the corporate interests don't already know. Next election: Christine O'Donnell is brought to you by Alli and Bounty, the quicker picker upper. Now with designer colors! Try our Burnt Sienna Bounty!

  • I'm Just a Bill says:

    Proudly stating, "I have not seen a political advertisement (for my district/county/state) in 2010." I had to go to my local "news" website & read what the candidates had to say about several issues. (I am very irritated by a lack of response by one who is apparently "resting on his laurels.")

  • Yeah I've been working up my own post on this for a while, musing away. Damn if you didn't go ahead and write it for me.

    To me the biggest issue is that, while we are spending $2-$3 BILLION on this midterm election, all of that money is going to one place: to buy TV ads. Elections are the media industry's cash cow. If anyone wants to know why we don't have publicly financed elections AND our political news coverage sucks, I have to think this is why. The greatest beneficiary of a divided country, hotly contested elections, Teanut "enthusiasm" etc. are the TV stations who sell air time.

  • grumpygradstudent says:

    I would worry that some "independent" group buys some giant media blitz right before an election alleging some patently absurd stuff that is just plausible enough to scare people (yes, like the Swiftboaters).

    I hope you're right though.

  • Here in Illinois, I was just listening to a roundtable of political consultants analyzing our Senate and Gubernatorial races. They actually broached the concept of *negative* marginal utility. They suggested that so many (especially negative) TV ads had the effect of keeping undecideds/independents *away* from the polls. And they further suggested that this was a deliberate strategy. Each side was betting that their base was bigger. You can't tell people they shouldn't vote, but you can make them not want to.

    This resonated with my personal experience with some campaigns. From canvassing, I know that some people just were so sick of the ads, the robocalls, and the canvassing they just weren't going to vote.

  • CaffinatedOne says:

    There's a powerful secondary effect of the asymmetric rush of advertising spending. Airtime and advertising space aren't unlimited, so dumping piles of cash into a campaign early can let them effectively buy up all of the best, if not nearly all, of the available advertising space. Even if it doesn't buy it all, it'll succeed in driving up the price of advertising in these venues which presents yet another barrier for the less funded campaign to get a message out.

  • @DB:
    That seems to be happening in CA as well – I'm sure a lot of less engaged voters are so sick of Whitman and the inscrutable back-and-forth on the props that they're just throwing up their hands.

  • I agree with people above, It seems plausible that campaign money buys favors from a candidate even if the marginal value of that money to the candidate is low.

    But I can't see that additional money will make this any different. It seems to me that a candidate has a fixed quantity of favors that they can deliver in a term and that if a candidate is predisposed to selling favors, then they'll take the best price they can get. So If more money is allowed then the auction price for favors will go up, but in a world with less money, the candidates was just selling the same set of favors for less money.

    The only way that CU would make a difference is if candidates have some sort of minimum bid for favors: That they won't perform favor X for any less than $Y, where Y is some number greater than the amount that they received before CU. That seems like a pretty thin scenario to me.

  • What's been fascinating to me, here in Ohio, is that the campaign ads are absolutely indistinguishable from one another. Each candidate accuses the other of exactly the same sins (being affiliated with "Wall Street fat-cats," and losing jobs to other states/countries), while claiming for himself the same virtues (primarily bringing/keeping jobs in Ohio.) That's it. That's all they're saying. If one were to base one's vote solely on the content of these ads (and I suspect many will), one might as well flip a coin, as the merits/deficiencies of both candidates are indistinguishable.

    And even more curiously (to me), is that the ads deliberately do *not* identify either candidate as a member of his political party. Again, watching the ads, I'd have no idea who the Democratic nominee is and who the Republican. None.

    There's an obvious cynical (and probably correct) point to be made about "all candidates being the same in a system as fundamentally geared towards corruption and compromise as ours." But there's also a creepy sense that both sides are hoping that nobody notices party affiliation. Which makes sense, I suppose, since urban Ohioans vote Democratic whenever this option is made remotely attractive (so the GOP candidate wants voters to be ignorant of his GOP status), and yet the Dems are in such a bad odor that, likewise, they want to rook people into voting for someone they think might be a Republican.

    In short, I'm seeing a lot of money being spent on playing what amounts to a shell game with voters here, and if it pays off, I think we can count on seeing a lot more of the same. (Or perhaps this is a common phenomenon, and I'm just late arriving to the table.)

  • I'm Just a Bill says:

    What about the amount of time spent on campaining. There has to be a cost associated with all of the time that the candidates are hitting the trail istead of, oh I don't know – WORKING.

    I for one would love to see a mandated short campaign cycle, limiting the time to smear one another, limiting the amount of time in which these unlimited monies can be spent, and lessening voter fatigue.

  • One more thing. While cash infusions seem to yield diminishing returns for essentially unremarkable candidates like eMeg, remember the full-moon howlers that were put on the GOP ticket solely by the Koch bros and other squillionaires behind the Tea Party curtain. Angle was polling 4% in the primaries before the teabag machine shined a light. O'Donnell's victory stunned and pissed off the entire R mainline. Money can't bail out weak, oversaturated candiates, but it's the only thing that can make true fringe-dwellers look credible and exciting, even when they melt down in public. Call it the Perot Effect.

  • What Ed describes is the law of diminishing returns. It's a valid concept. FWIW I ignore ads completely, and used to schedule them for a living.

  • I agree with the above comments saying that the effect is to buy the politician, not the election.

    Now, the Citizens United decision was about spending on media and not on the candidate, but it can still have the same effect. The politician has a slush fund – I mean, a "campaign fund" which needs to be split between ad buys and other things (salaries for his wife & kids & buddies on the payroll, "expenses" that actually pay for his everyday spending, payments to "consulting" companies that are actually just welfare operations for political operatives). To the extent that third party ad spending can substitute for the candidate spending money from their own fund on ad buys, the third-party funding is equivalent to a direct (and unlimited/untraceable) contribution to the campaign fund.

    And that, much more than the actual effects of saturation TV ad buys, is the real problem with it.

    All that said, politicians had plenty of ways of getting bribes from corporations as it was and one more channel probably isn't going to make much difference.

  • You're assuming that the giving of money is about the winning of elections. It is not. It is, and always has been, about owning the winner of the election.

  • The Man, The Myth says:

    The issue I have with the whole money thing isn't how it buys the Politician, its how it makes me feel like its not even worth participating because I think the system is a pay to play game. I can't afford to spend ten million purchasing ads in support of "X" issue – so why bother even trying. This is what is causing a whole generation feel so indifferent and cynical about our country. As someone else said: please lets regulate when ads can be bought and how much airtime each issue gets. Also, I think its bizarre how long these campaigns take. When did Obama start actively "campaigning" for POTUS? I recall February of 2007 (could be wrong…) and Hillary and Edwards announced soon there after – two of them were actually working as Senators? Isn't that a big waste of time for people who should be creating legislation? How does that make sense? I expect that sometime early next year we will see Palin or another Republican stooge announce their desire to campaign for POTUS! That will not make me happy.

  • Dude, I think you are very wrong about the cumulative psychological effect of teevee advertisements on people who view them over and over and over. It's the repetition that is exactly what makes them effective. Hearing hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times over and over and over with scary dramatic music and spooky lighting and editing how evil and socialist and muslim and foreign democrats are *motivates* sick-fuck right-wing shitbagges to haul their skanky asses to the motherfucken polls.

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