As part of our series “A Rooseveltian Second-Term Agenda,” an acknowledgment that the election didn’t just showcase the problems of outside money in campaigns, but a potential way forward.
It’s been tempting to treat the 2012 election as proof that money in politics doesn’t matter as much as commonly believed, or that Citizens United and the emergence of Super PACs and political nonprofits didn’t change things as much as predicted. “Effect of ‘Super PACs’ proved to be less than expected,” the Los Angeles Times declared in a post-election headline.
It is true that the presidential candidacy most dependent on Super PACs and other “dark money” support was soundly defeated, and the same was true of the Senate candidates backed by Karl Rove’s American Crossroads and related groups. Prophecies that corporate money would flood in and swamp the candidates, particularly Democrats, didn’t come true. (Some of us were always skeptical of this prediction.) And it turned out the Super PACs had some particular disadvantages because they couldn’t purchase media time at the favorable rates that are available to campaigns. The Republican dark money committees’ focus on broadcast advertising to the exclusion of other campaign activities turned out to be misplaced in an election where the “ground game” of identifying voters and getting them to the polls is what mattered. (It’s also likely that the Republican Super PAC operators focused on radio and television because there are financial incentives for consultants to buy media and collect a commission of 10 or 15 percent. Voter mobilization efforts don’t have the same payoff.)
But a general election presidential campaign, and even a high-profile Senate campaign, is not where we would expect to see the decisive power of money in election outcomes. Presidential candidates, especially incumbents, are well known and have ample opportunity to get their message out without paying for it. For example, half the number of people who voted watched at least one of the presidential debates. Money is more significant in determining who has an opportunity to run for office and whether that candidate has sufficient resources to be heard.