Why Didn’t Money Talk?

When a series of Supreme Court decisions dismantled campaign finance laws, many of us viewed the future with a glum certainty: Vast amounts of anonymous money were going to pour into political campaigns, most of it was going to pool up behind Republican candidates, and the dams that had so imperfectly preserved democracy until now would finally break altogether, sweeping in a more-or-less permanent Republican majority.

Some of that happened. The Republican presidential primaries, for example, often seemed more like a struggle between billionaire backers than between candidates. Sheldon Adelson kept Newt Gingrich in the race more-or-less single-handedly. Foster Friess did the same for Rick Santorum. Mitt Romney may not have relied on a single billionaire, but his campaign purse seemed bottomless as he overwhelmed one challenger after another with negative ads.

Vast amounts were spent in the general election, and Romney did have the advantage, but the totals weren’t lopsided. Open Secrets estimated that (as of October 17), largely unaccountable outside pro-Romney groups had spent three times as much as comparable pro-Obama groups, but that Obama’s campaign had raised almost enough in the old-fashioned way to make up the difference.

Source of Funds Obama Romney
Candidate $540,812,931 $336,399,297
Party $263,223,785 $284,156,290
Outside groups $128,056,615 $409,597,799
Total $932,093,331 $1,030,153,386

(It’s possible that Romney’s edge increased in the last 3 weeks of the campaign, but — speaking as a swing-state voter — I didn’t notice it.) What’s more, since networks sell airtime to candidates at a lower rate than they charge outside groups, and because the Obama campaign got bargains by committing money early, Obama may actually have been able to air more commercials than Romney did. Ad Age concludes: “Obama’s campaign ultimately won the air war.”

Similar things happened in the Senate races. Outside groups spent $15 million in Ohio attacking Sherrod Brown, but the Brown campaign managed to raise enough to maintain a rough parity. The truly crazy election was Jon Tester’s win in Montana, where outside groups spent $25 million and the campaigns themselves another $20 million, totaling about $100 per vote. But again, Tester stayed competitive.

In general, the Democrats had an advantage in small contributions, but they also raised some big money. (Who knows what price we’ll pay for that in the long run?) And they won even when they were outspent, as long as they weren’t outspent by much.

So it’s tempting to say that the whole money issue was overblown. My conclusion is a little less optimistic: I think the Republicans haven’t figured out what to do with their advantage yet. Karl Rove took his $400 million and did the same things he used to do with $40 million, just ten times more of it. That didn’t work.

And despite Romney’s image as a great salesman and a business genius, he just got outplayed. Obama’s early-summer ads had a clear goal: Make Bain Capital a negative for Romney. Probably that was the most effective advertising of the whole campaign. By contrast Romney’s ads lacked strategy. What product was he selling? Moderate Massachusetts Mitt? Severely conservative Mitt? Big business Mitt? The Great White Hope? Even his negative ads lacked coherence. He seemed to be throwing everything at Obama to see what would stick.

So at one level, the campaign just reinforces what any marketing professor will tell you: A big advertising budget isn’t enough. You need a product and a message that sells the product. You need to know who you’re selling to and why they should want to buy.

But Romney’s failure, like the Edsel and New Coke, doesn’t imply that advertising doesn’t work. Money in politics is like height in basketball. Sure, occasionally you run into a 7-foot stiff and a Spud Webb who can run rings around him. Height isn’t decisive that way, but it matters. You can’t ignore height and imagine that you’re going to assemble a championship basketball team.

Similarly, the fact that big money couldn’t buy Republicans the White House or the Senate in 2012 doesn’t mean that they can’t be bought. The fact that the corporations and the billionaires didn’t get everything they wanted this time doesn’t mean that they won’t next time.

In politics, money talks in stages. The first stage is just to get your name known. The second gets your name identified with some issue or slogan or proposal. Third, you can attach some negative image to your opponent and fend off the image he tries to attach to you. In all of those stages, there’s a ceiling — after you spend a certain amount, the message has been delivered, and the advantage in delivering it over and over diminishes.

But I suspect there are stages we have not yet dreamed of, in which large amounts of money, creatively spent, can change the public’s perception of reality.

The 2012 billion-dollar campaigns were horseless carriages. But by 2016, someone may have designed a genuine roadster. Then we’ll be in trouble.

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Comments

  • Stephanie  On November 12, 2012 at 10:10 am

    As a volunteer making phone calls for a candidate for the House, I used the large PAC money going to the incumbent against the incumbent. Huge donations were successful as a weapon because the incumbent had clearly forgotten who brought him to the party. He voted with the Tea Party but he was supposed to represent a non-Tea Party district. Huge donations just fueled the anger against the incumbent.

  • Dave  On November 12, 2012 at 10:27 am

    Money did work, Romney should never have gotten as many votes as he did.

  • Dan B.  On November 12, 2012 at 10:40 am

    You make good points here. I think it’s too soon to say that Citizens United isn’t worth worrying about, solely on the basis of this election.

    Another strong possibility is that the money did work, insofar as it helped narrow the gap between where Mitt Romney would have been without that money, and where he actually ended up.

    It’s also possible that Fox News gives the Republicans almost all the advertising that they need, and anything on top of that is going to give them an incremental gain at best.

  • Edward Davis  On November 23, 2012 at 11:25 am

    Big Corporate Money has changed the perception of one reality: the threat of climate change, which was once perceived as a critical issue but now sits on the back burner thanks to billions of dollars spent by corporate lobby groups to spread doubt about the science.

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