The New York Times this morning reports on political spending in this election cycle, but it also wishes to explain to readers the meaning of all these dollars. So the article this morning about the money going into Senate and House races links the cash to “consequences [that] are already becoming apparent”: candidate loss of control over their messaging and a sharply negative tone. The grounds for these conclusions are not drawn from the the numbers. They are added on. Note that a contradiction is now entering into the discussion of Super PACs and outside independent activity. One of two things can be true but not both: either the “shadow parties” or candidate-affiliated organizations are synchronizing their messages with the candidates’, or they are operating independently and crowding out the candidate’s communications. The Times puts both explanations into its story.
Campaign finance reformers are worried about the future. They contend that two Supreme Court rulings — the McCutcheon decision in March and the 2010 Citizens United decision — will magnify inequality in U.S. politics. In both cases, the court majority relaxed constraints on how money can be spent on or donated to political campaigns. By allowing more private money to flow to campaigns, the critics maintain, the court has allowed the rich an unfair advantage in shaping political outcomes and made “one dollar, one vote” (in one formulation) the measure of our corrupted democracy. This argument misses the mark for at least four reasons. First, the money spent on federal campaigns is not excessive; quite the contrary. Second, elections — and politics in general — are inherently unequal for many reasons other than money. Third, incumbency is by far the greatest source of this inequality, and the limits on contributions — and thus on most candidates’ spending — that reformers want to retain would only worsen it. Finally, the claim that generous donors and big independent spenders in effect buy federal elections and policies is contradicted by the empirical evidence.
Since the beginning of the current election cycle, extremely wealthy individuals, corporations and trade unions — all of them determined to influence who is in the White House next year — have spent more than $160 million (excluding party expenditures). That’s an incredible amount of money. To put it in perspective, at this point in 2008, about $36 million had been spent on independent expenditures (independent meaning independent of a candidate’s campaign). In all of 2008, in fact, only $156 million was spent this way. In other words, we’ve already surpassed 2008, and it’s July. In the near term, there’s nothing we can do to reverse this dramatic increase in independent expenditures. Yet what really alarms us about this situation is that we can’t find out who is behind these blatant attempts to control the outcome of our elections. We are inundated with extraordinarily negative advertising on television every evening and have no way to know who is paying for it and what their agenda might be. In fact, it’s conceivable that we have created such a glaring loophole in our election process that foreign interests could directly influence the outcome of our elections. And we might not even know it had happened until after the election, if at all.
Obama campaign senior adviser David Axelrod this week blamed Illinois’ low primary turnout on the barrage of negative ads the GOP candidates have unleashed on each other. He was correct about the negativity of the 2012 campaign – but the candidates’ ads are only part of the picture. According to The Post’s Mad Money campaign ad tracker, the ads being aired by the super PACs supporting the GOP presidential candidates are far more negative than the ones being aired by the White House hopefuls themselves. All in all, an average of 77 percent of the ads run by the super PACs supporting the four GOP candidates have been negative. By comparison, an average of 54 percent of all ads aired by the four candidates’ campaigns have been negative ones.