Democrats can win control of the House of Representatives, governorships and many other offices in November if they do just one thing: Stop playing politics the way the Koch brothers and other right-wing billionaires do.
A surefire way to make sure Republicans stay in power is to continue pouring most campaign money into costly television commercials that sway few voters. But the path to victory is simple: Put all that money into registering voters and, especially, getting them to the polls on Election Day. Polls don’t count. Votes do.
For less than the cost of airing a major market television ad just one time, scores of voters can be driven to the polls on Election Day. All it takes are telephones, organizing, and cars with tanks full of gas. It could also be a good one-day jobs program for people long out of work.
You can make this happen. You can exercise power. You can change the direction our nation is heading in. All you need are time, focus, and determination. And you need to tell politicians asking for your donations that you’ll give not one penny for TV ads, but all you can afford in cash and time for getting out the vote.
Of course you could just keep donating to politicians who lavish money on campaign professionals, who prosper buying television airtime even when their candidate-clients fail to win despite poll after poll showing that Republicans are out of touch with what Americans want.
When 73 percent of Republicans support increasing Social Security benefits even as party leaders work to cut them, it shows that our Election Day results are out of alignment with popular attitudes.
So does this fact: Republicans control the House even though, in 2012, Americans who cast ballots favored Democratic House candidates by 60,252,696 votes to 58,541,130.
The reason the minority party has control is partly gerrymandering: The creation of districts, often with bizarre geographical boundaries, that corral Democrats and those likely to vote for Democrats (students, union members, minorities, etc.) into highly concentrated blue districts.
On the other hand, most people simply do not vote. In many off-year congressional elections, turning out a few thousand unexpected voters could change the outcome.
To get an idea of how much failing to vote hurts, consider Ferguson, the Missouri town where a white city council and nearly all-white police department abuse black citizens, just 2 percent of whom voted in the last municipal election (compared to 12 percent of whites). Because the city is two-thirds black, if Ferguson blacks voted in the high single digits, and assuming white voting is unchanged, the disenfranchised could win the next municipal election.
Republicans could, of course, also put more money into turning out the vote if Democrats change their strategy. But since poll after poll shows that strong majorities favor progressive policies, including closing corporate tax loopholes and raising tax rates on the super-rich, this is a game they cannot win.
So long as elections are dominated by money, the billionaires enjoy the advantage. The right simply enjoys far more capacity than progressives to spend on elections.
And the oligarchs benefit far more than unions or other organizations of the common people from the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision equating political dollars with political speech.
Griping about what an awful decision that was will not win elections. And like the Supreme Court’s racist Dred Scott and Plessy decisions, Citizens United is going to be with us for a long time. Better to work around that decision than to grouse.
It is also crucial to understand that many of the oligarchs see government in different terms from everyone else. They see government policy as a potential source of profits, or hobbling competition, and in general as an institution central to their welfare.
Many of those who grow rich off government policies think of campaign spending not as donations, but as risky investments, like venture capital.
In the 2012 elections, congressional campaigns spent almost $3.7 billion, far more than the $2.6 billion spent on the presidential contest. Take a look at the profits of companies enriched by anti-consumer federal policies – in banking, health insurance, railroads, or telecommunications, to name a few – and those seemingly huge figures turn out to be pocket change.
When candidates whom the oligarchs support are elected, they often – though not always — can be counted on to promote subtle but lucrative changes in laws and regulations. These include slashing audits of corporate tax returns, cutting safety inspections at job sites, and denying money or political support for prosecutions, as we have seen with the free pass given to Wall Street for fraudulently issuing mortgages and then bundling them into toxic securities to be sold to public pension funds and other gullible buyers.
The strategic big campaign donors to both parties know that while each of these investments are risky, the overall payoff from campaign donations will earn far more money than they can earn in the marketplace, as I have shown in my trilogy on the American economy, Perfectly Legal, Free Lunch and The Fine Print.
The income tax system, for example, has become a huge profit center for multinational companies, as detailed in my Sept. 12 cover story for Newsweek. The pipeline industry rakes in billions from a tax it is exempt from paying, yet under a George W. Bush-era regulation, customers are forced to pay to the industry. Nearly 3,000 big companies get to secretly keep some of the income taxes withheld from employee paychecks. Congress and state-level politicians help cable and telephone monopolists reduce competition and jack up prices. And politicians like Chris Christie, the Republican New Jersey governor who hopes to become president, enrich Wall Street by steering overpriced contracts to manage pension money to firms run by their donors.
Lots of TV ads are wasted money. As one chapter in a 2011 book on campaign advertising by Professors Travis N. Ridout of Washington State University and Michael M. Franz of Bowdoin College explains:
Your ad will be seen by your base voters, undecided voters, voters of the other party, and lots of non-voters. What you say on television, then, often can be wasted on viewers who will never vote for you, or never vote at all. In sum, television remains more of a shotgun tactic than a rifle shot.
Ridout’s and Franz’s book looks at politics as it is and concludes that television ads can be important. But the path to electoral victory, as to profits for those taking on any entrenched business, is doing things differently.
Democrats should take some lessons here from business.
Conrad Hilton and his team came up with the idea of putting hotels at airports in 1959, and later inside the terminals. Mostly because no one had thought of it before, those who followed the traditional model of building business hotels downtown considered the idea crazy. Hilton made a fortune, in part because expense-account guests gladly pay premium rates for rooms they can walk to, avoiding the hassles of taxis, traffic and even more time lost to travel, as well as permitting more sleep before an early-morning flight home.
The Kochs grow rich refining their consumer products to please buyers, from the absorbency of their Brawny paper towels to the varieties of Dixie cups. Make no mistake; the Kochs are serious people who manage their businesses well.
The way to win, then, is to change the game. Instead of playing catchup in the money game, turn politics this fall into a get-out-the-vote game.
The strategy is for districts where the vote is not so lopsided that a Democrat could never win. If you live in one those, find a district nearby that could be changed with an unexpectedly large turnout. Call friends and start going door to door to register voters. Call people the day before polling starts to urge them to vote – not with those annoying robocalls, but real human contact. And take Election Day off so you and others can drive people to the polls.
Or stay home and watch football and Dancing with the Stars on TV.
Photo: Neighborhood Centers Inc. via Flickr
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