Saturday, January 3, 2015

The Changing Role of Money in Politics

The 2012 presidential election was the first to be held in the aftermath of the Supreme Court's ruling on Citizens United. Too many of us have forgotten that the results of that election were the opposite of what the megadonors had hoped for.
Can't buy me gov.

That line neatly sums up the dismal showing on Election Day for the fundraisers, super-PAC strategists, and big-dollar donors of the Republican Party. Outside groups spent north of $1 billion this campaign season—bankrolled mostly by a small cadre of wealthy contributors—and yet they and their funders, especially on the Republican side, were left with little to show for it when the sun rose Wednesday morning. The GOP's flagship super-PAC, Karl Rove's American Crossroads, had an abysmal 1 percent return on its $104 million investment. Megadonor Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, invested $57 million in 2012 races; only 42 percent of the candidates who received Adelson support won. Other big donors—say, Romney super-PAC backers—got nothing for their money.
Perhaps we forgot about all of that because the 2014 midterms turned a lot of it around (with a few exceptions, i.e., Eric Cantor).
The 100 biggest campaign donors gave $323 million in 2014 — almost as much as the $356 million given by the estimated 4.75 million people who gave $200 or less...

And the balance almost certainly would tip far in favor of the mega-donors were the analysis to include nonprofit groups that spent at least $219 million — and likely much more — but aren’t required to reveal their donors’ identities.

The numbers — gleaned from reports filed with the Federal Election Commission and the Internal Revenue Service — paint the most comprehensive picture to date of an electoral landscape in which the financial balance has tilted dramatically to the ultra-rich. They have taken advantage of a spate of recent federal court rulings, regulatory decisions and feeble or bumbling oversight to spend ever-greater sums in politics — sometimes raising questions about whether their bounty is being well spent...

Taken together, the trend lines reflect a new political reality in which a handful of superaffluent partisans can exert more sway over the campaign landscape than millions of donors of more average means.
With sweeping victories for the Republicans these megadonors financed, it appears as though that success overshadows their previous failure in 2012 to influence the election outcome.

But it does raise a couple of questions: Are megadonors more effective at influencing midterms than presidential elections? And if so, why? One possible answer to those questions comes from turning our gaze away from who gives the money in order to focus for a moment on how it is spent.

Over the last few decades, as the amount of money in politics has exploded, the vast majority of those dollars have been spent on media - particularly television advertisements. Recently we've been learning more about what audience those ads reach. Derek Thompson reported it this way: Half of Broadcast TV Viewers Are 54 and Older - Yikes. As Cecilia Kang pointed out, younger viewers are trending away from traditional television in favor of subscription-based channels and streaming options.

And so it should probably not come as a surprise that a midterm election focused on turning out older voters in local elections is more fertile ground for expensive television advertising.

It will be interesting to see how all this plays out in the 2016 presidential election. I would simply note that all of Karl Rove's millions of dollars in TV advertising were no match in 2012 to a simple recording by a catering staff at Mitt Romney's famous 47% event. In the meantime, the Democrat's largest megadonor - George Soros - has "shifted his giving away from pure politics, preferring to fund causes devoted to building up progressive infrastructure."

At least until the laws are changed, megadonors are legally able to use their millions of dollars in an attempt to influence elections. The question will increasingly be...what do they spend it on?

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