Romney vs. Obama: Big campaign cash spent neither wisely nor well

On the north wall of my living room is a 37- by 58-inch map of the United States. It shows only landforms and drainage. It is beautifully executed.

There are no state boundaries on the map. There are no political divisions on the map of any kind, not even the names of states or cities or towns. There are just landforms — rivers, mountains, valleys, plateaus, lakes.

This map is all of us, commingled in our differences. But until November, we will be shown differing, even disturbing, realities in other media-manufactured and “Magic Wall” maps of the United States. Pundits and candidates will talk about red states and blue states and purple states — battleground states vs. safe states. And we’ll likely be shown maps with different shades of green.

Those green maps will show who’s spending what amounts of political money where. (For example, scroll down to this Washington Post map showing political ad spending by states. Some markets get plenty; many get bupkis.) But it’s not likely that we’ll be shown maps identifying the sources of that money — because, it seems, the Supreme Court of these United States says much of this money, given by the few, can be hidden from us, the many.

When former senator Rick Santorum ended his presidential campaign last month, he had not run out of ideological gas. He had run out of money.

“Money is not everything in politics,” he told The New York Times. “But you do have to have enough to be successful … Someone — one of the old politicos when I got involved in this race — said the same thing, which is: ‘Every presidential campaign ends for the same reason: You run out of money.'”

It is difficult to believe, especially in this election cycle, that money is not everything in politics, as Santorum argues. Reading news reports and blogs, it’s easy to conclude that the principal media topic is who raised how much and from whom — not discussion of actual policy initiatives or analyses of same by pundits fair and foul.

The presidential candidates have raised $330 million thus far in funds that must be reported to the Federal Election Commission, The Times reports. President Obama has raised $196 million for his official campaign committee, more than twice Mitt Romney’s $87 million — and that’s just through March 31.

“This is going to be the most moneyed election in the history of the United States,” Bob Edgar, the president of Common Cause and a political child of Watergate, told The Times. His organization seeks increased limits on campaign spending. After reading Jeffrey Toobin’s New Yorker analysis of Chief Justice Roberts’ Citizens United manuevering, it’s clear that decreased limits, not increased limits, are more likely.

Obama raised more than $750 million in his 2008 campaign. Super PACs — trade and union associations largely freed by the Court to spend unregulated money on “electioneering communications” — were not on the political radar.

They are now. They are forbidden by law to “coordinate” with candidates’ official campaigns, as convincingly demonstrated by faux news anchors Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. But they are free to coordinate among themselves on fundraising and spending.

The Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan organization focused on campaign finances, reports that as of May 16 “542 groups organized as Super PACs have reported total receipts of $204,716,872 and total independent expenditures of $105,730,175″ in this election cycle. Candidate and super PAC fundraising has topped half a billion dollars — and it’s only May. Forbes reports that 40 billionaires — 40 individuals — have already provided (principally GOP) candidates with tens of millions of dollars.

Several of these super PACS — such as the Republican-leaning Restore Our Future and American Crossroads and the Democratic-leaning Priorities USA — are expected to raise hundreds of millions of dollars more for the general election. Some believe the president’s official campaign organizations alone will raise $1 billion.

In this election cycle, Romney and Obama and their “non-coordinating” entities may raise and spend well more than $2 billion.

So we scream for transparency. Tell us who these hidden donors are, we cry. Lo and behold, the Campaign Legal Center reports:

[A] three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals denied a motion to stay a lower court ruling in Van Hollen v. FEC that requires comprehensive disclosure of funders for groups making ‘electioneering communications.’ Millions of dollars have already been spent this cycle on electioneering communications and those funding them will now have to be revealed.

Riiight. If this case makes it to the Supreme Court, Roberts will bat it away. Even if he doesn’t, how long will it take Congress to re-engineer (again) campaign finance “reform”?

How will Romney and the president (and those “non-coordinating” super PACs) spend these enormous sums?

Much, if not eventually most, of those monies will be spent on advertising. The Washington Post reported that super PACs spent $55 million on advertising during the presidential primary season. That’s more than the official candidates’ committees spent.

Now that Romney reigns as the apparent GOP nominee, expect advertising expenditures to surge. So the political discourse of Romney and Obama will consist primarily of advertising attacking each other or tightly controlled, highly scripted speeches and interviews with carefully chosen pundits.

But not all of us will be exposed to this contemptuous discourse. Ad dollars will flow unevenly from state to state. Look at that WashPo map again of ad spending by states. It’s disturbing.

That’s because modern politics dictates that money is primarily spent in states considered winnable. That’s not the same as states in which candidates know they can win. The former gets maximum ad buys; the latter minimal. States that candidates know they’ll lose get squat. If you’re a Republican, you bet heavy on purple, light on red, and nada on blue.

In states getting heavy spending, broadcasters will swoon over the free money falling into their coffers. They will air the ads in which super PACs assure that candidates can substitute style for substance, rancor for reality, and deception for honesty. Fact-checking by a few prominent media organizations will be bulldozed by the sheer volume of the broadcast muck.

A big chunk of these opaque funds will pay for slicing and dicing the electorate through computerized micro-targeting. That’s gone further upscale.

Thomas Edsall, who covered national politics for a quarter-century for The Post, wrote in The Times:

On a broader scale, the emergence of nanotargeting represents the addition of one more factor in modern political life that intensifies polarization. The industry capitalizes on (and profits from) identifying how partisans on the left and right differ. Campaigns then use this information to target explicitly polarizing messages that are designed to expand or suppress turnout among a specific subgroup of voters.

The men and women who earn a living by selling microtechnology to campaigns benefit from this intensifying polarization, which drives greater segmentation of the electorate, which in turn becomes ever more receptive to ideologically extreme communication.

So we’re minutely segmented for finely tuned messaging. Sheesh.

Some money will be spent on “opposition research” — you know, digging up dirt on the other candidate.

By now you may be thinking, “Yeah, I know. I know all this. So what?”

Direct your dismay not to what these monies are buying; direct it instead to what this money is not buying.

Aside from the acquisition of requisite “policy position” and “briefing” papers by “noted experts,” how many tens of millions are candidates spending to research innovative policy solutions for what ails the nation regardless of what party or ideology politically benefits from such research?

What have they invested beyond the tired imperatives demanded by their “political bases”? Where are the new ideas that need testing by the electorate to determine whether they will make the Republic safer, fairer, more tolerant, and better able to foster opportunity for its citizenry? Why have presidential candidates been über-dependent on recycled, ideologically driven platform planks?

It’s not the money itself that should trouble us. As Lawrence Lessig writes in “Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress — and a Plan to Stop It”, it’s “money in the wrong place.”

Hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent primarily to deceive the electorate by telling, if not outright falsehoods about an opponent, then partial lies. Tens of millions will be spent merely to program computers to dissect electorate by political, economic, and demographic sensibilities. So much money will be spent to acquire power — rather than investing in what could make us collectively exceptional as a nation.

No, I do not know “what could make us collectively exceptional.” But neither do Romney and Obama. They would rather spend hundreds of millions of dollars to badmouth each other rather than search for that definitive something that could resurrect the Republic from the mess that ideological politics has created for all of us.

1 reply »

  1. I wonder – if we took all the money from both candidates and pooled it, would that be enough to put a dent in student loan debt? How would it compare to annual NSF funding? Would it help sustain or restore funding to NASA weather satellites that are slowly dying in orbit?