A funny thing’s happening on the way to Nov. 6. The billionaires trying to buy the U.S. election with contributions of $1 million, $10 million or even $100 million aren’t succeeding.
If trends continue and the Democrats have a good year (still a big if), the notion that in order to win candidates must accept gobs of money from super-political action committees will be discredited.
Then we’ll see a small opening for a practical solution to our corrupt politics that would require no spending limits, no barring of super-PACs and no constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.
This solution would free at least some candidates for federal office from dispiriting and corrupting lives of endless fundraising and legalized bribery. It would strike a blow for democracy, localism and choice (always a crowd-pleaser for the Republicans) in our elections.
It’s important to understand why the deluge of super-PAC contributions — and those from shadowy 501(c)4 groups, which don’t require disclosure — isn’t working as well as Republican strategists Karl Rove and the Koch brothers or the casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson may have hoped. (The same goes for the relative pikers on President Barack Obama’s side, such as the Priorities USA super-PAC).
The reason is that big money in politics has a competitor: small money in politics. Even though big money is winning this year — it accounts for more than 75 percent of donations — small money raised on the Internet is better adapted to the 21st century political battlefield.
Big money is used mostly to pay for negative television ads. These spots can still be potent and force the other side to raise enough money to rebut them. But Americans, especially younger voters, aren’t watching TV the way they used to. They’re time-shifting programming and are increasingly cynical about ads. With all the airwave pollution, saturation levels are reached earlier, especially if the messages in the ads are at odds with what’s going on in the news.
Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee, and several trailing Republican Senate candidates are finding this out.
Super-PACs can dominate the air war, but they have trouble buying ground troops. Political strategists know from experience that phone banks and canvass teams made up of low-wage hired help are far inferior to those using volunteers sincerely trying to persuade voters.
The reason the Obama campaign sends out so many irritating requests for $3 or $5 donations is that these solicitations do more than just raise cash. Once millions of small donors have a little skin in the game, they’re much more likely to assist with registration and get-out-the-vote efforts. This willingness to help can’t be purchased by super-PACs at any price.
I’m not suggesting that small donations are competitive yet. In House races in 2010, only 8 percent of contributions were for less than $200. But with a boost, small money can play with the big boys.