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Democrats, Beware: Billionaires Can Still Buy Elections Very Easily

Does money matter in politics anymore? If you focus on just presidential elections, you might be inclined to say no. At least, that’s the opinion Gabriel Sherman amplifies in New York magazine, pointing to the two—OK, one and a half—post–Citizens United elections and finding Republican mega-donors disappointed by their efforts to use super PACs to buy a president. 

The donors spend most of Sherman’s article feeling betrayed by Karl Rove and other consultants, who promised them that their massive contributions would translate into a Mitt Romney victory. But in 2012, the two candidates, their affiliated parties, and super PACs spent virtually the same amount of money; it’s not like Romney supporters overwhelmed the opposition with cash.

The 2016 Republican primary has further stirred this feeling about the utility of political spending. Charting candidate advertising dollars against poll numbers shows almost a negative correlation. Donald Trump hasn’t spent a cent on the air and leads everyone, while Jeb Bush’s $30 million has bought next to nothing in support. 

The fact that Trump recently promised a $100 million ad blitz suggests that even he doesn’t think this dynamic will hold. And candidate quality—or lack thereof—matters, as the presumed front-runners six months ago, Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, surely indicate. But it’s a big mistake to equate the presidential election with the whole of politics. Doing so misses the extreme importance of money in the political system.

Because Trump is not the worst businessman in the world, he can figure out that when television networks give him hundreds of millions of dollars in free advertising by hanging on his every word, he might not need to supplement that with anything out of his own pocket. But the importance of free media isn’t limited to the Trump phenomenon. The 2016 presidential race was the most covered political subject in 2015. Debates are drawing ratings rivaled only by football (and that includes Democratic debates, when they are not deliberately hidden from view by the DNC). Likely voters cannot get out of the way of the election if they wanted to. And this will only grow over the next ten months. 

In that landscape, the marginal value of the next 30-second ad approaches zero. Ads enrich media planners at the campaigns and local TV stations in battleground states. When they are provocative, they can drive the conversation for a couple days. And it wouldn’t behoove a presidential candidate to completely go dark. But you cannot stomp your way to victory in a twenty-first-century presidential election on television commercials. There are far too many other ways for voters to get information.

The campaigns know this, which is why they’re letting super PACs run the ads in the early going. The smarter donors have also recognized this, which is why they are pivoting to field operations, voter registration, and research. This gives donors the comfort of greater control in how resources are spent, but it’s unclear how much fruit these efforts will actually bear. They’re still sticking cords of lumber into the presidential election wood-chipper, and expecting the end product to turn into gold.

There are areas of politics where a flood of money can make a huge difference: namely, virtually everything but the presidential race. Super PACs in lower-profile elections don’t have to contend with pre-drawn narratives and rigid top-of-the-ticket voting patterns. There often isn’t the same relative financial balance on each side. And money stretches much further in a House race in exurban Missouri than a presidential election in Ohio or Florida.

You can make the argument that no amount of super PAC cash delivered a greater return than the relatively modest sums plowed into state legislative races in 2010. Conservative groups outspent liberal Super PACs in those elections by 3:2, and outside spending on state elections jumped, especially on the Republican side. The resulting conservative majority from that wave election, with a gain of 675 seats, secured state redistricting and strengthened the Republican grip on Congress for ten years. 

This sprang from a concerted Republican strategy to win state legislatures, mindful that this could be accomplished for a pittance. A project called REDMAP, armed with just $30 million, destroyed Democratic state legislative hopes and created a structural majority for Republicans across states and Congress.

Though presidential spending gets all the headlines, super PACs continue to dominate state and local elections. In fact, one of the more critical Democratic initiatives this year, responding to this under-the-radar conservative dominance, is Advantage 2020, a unified effort of campaign committees supporting governors, House members, and state legislative candidates to win local elections five years from now. They’ve already announced a staff director and held strategy sessions, with an early commitment of at least $70 million. 

That might work out for Democrats, but it presages an arms race over your local assemblymember that turns democracy over to the highest bidder. Democrats fighting at the ground level beats unilateral disarmament, but it makes more remote the potential for public financing and other strategies to prevent the corruption that inevitably accompanies campaign cash floods.

All of this also neglects the source of even bigger returns on investment in political spending: lobbying. Since 2008, spending on lobbying has topped $3.24 billion annually. For context, that’s about twice the cost of a midterm election cycle, and a tad more than a presidential cycle. You can’t talk about money in politics without this element, especially when lobbyists write their own legislation and when a small clause dropped into a law can mean billions to the bottom line.

The narrative that money can’t buy anything in Washington anymore is appealing, but it doesn’t match with the facts. It’s fun to gloat about rich people “wasting” their money on a presidential also-ran, but when they can buy the whole system on the cheap and rig it to reap most of the benefits of economic growth, they can afford to burn a buck or two. Until we stop viewing everything in politics through the lens of the presidential race, a different type of campaign with different rules, we will never truly understand the distorting power of money or come up with a plan to limit it.