THE IMPACT OF ALL THE CAMPAIGN SPENDING

ABSTRACT: Roughly $6 billion was spent on the 2012 elections for federal offices. Although complete data isn’t yet available, an unprecedented $1.3 billion plus of this amount was “outside” money. Roughly a quarter of this outside money was “dark” money – money where the actual source of the money cannot be identified. About 80% of the outside money was spent opposing a candidate, typically through negative advertising. And over 70% of the outside money was spent trying to elect Republicans. The big outside money donors are large corporations and very wealthy individuals who have very specific, special interests in government actions that provide them substantial benefits.

Although the deluge of outside money achieved only limited election results, it had other significant, if somewhat more subtle, impacts. First, the great majority of the outside spending was on negative advertising, which changed the tone of the campaigns and demeaned the whole electoral process – candidates, voting, and the role of government. Second, the unlimited contribution amounts increase the influence these contributors have with elected officials; it creates a sense of obligation. Third, candidates had to spend even more of their time than before raising money. Finally, certain issues were not even discussed during the campaign for fear of alienating large donors.

FULL POST: Roughly $6 billion was spent on the 2012 elections for federal offices according to the best estimates; a truly staggering sum. Although complete data isn’t yet available, an unprecedented $1.3 billion plus of this amount was “outside” money, namely spending by entities other than the candidates’ campaigns themselves. And roughly a quarter of this outside money was “dark” money – money where the actual source of the money cannot be identified. [1]

About 80% of the outside money was spent opposing a candidate, typically through negative advertising. And over 70% of the outside money was spent trying to elect Republicans. This Republican advantage in outside money was offset in part by Obama’s and other Democratic candidates’ ability to out raise Republicans in direct contributions to their campaigns (i.e., in “inside” money). [2]

Beyond the general concern about the influence of large amounts of campaign money on candidates and elected officials, these unprecedented levels of outside money raise particular concerns. The outside money comes almost exclusively from large donors (i.e., $100,000, $1,000,000, and multi-million dollar contributions). The outside money donors are large corporations and very wealthy individuals who have very specific, special interests in government actions that provide them substantial benefits.

The good news is that all this outside money didn’t buy successful election results to the extent I and many others thought it would. Clearly, outside money significantly affected the Republican Presidential primary.[3] It also had a notable impact on some Congressional primary races. And presumably the large sums that flowed into competitive Congressional races, particularly in the last few days before the election, did affect the outcome of some of those races. [4] [5]

Although the deluge of outside money achieved only limited election results, it had other significant, if somewhat more subtle, impacts.

First, the great majority of the outside spending was on negative advertising, which changed the tone of the campaigns, particularly in competitive races. This negativity demeaned the whole electoral process – the candidates, voting, and the role of government. The ads were often misleading and sometimes clearly false. This occurred because candidates cannot be held accountable for the ads, given that the outside money is independent and outside of the candidates’ control (at least in theory). [6] The negative advertising forces candidates to spend time and money defending themselves rather than discussing issues. Note that in the Massachusetts Senate race there was very little of the negative advertising that was common elsewhere because the candidates had an enforceable agreement to ban outside spending on advertising.

Second, the unlimited contribution amounts, newly unleashed by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, increase the influence these contributors have with elected officials when they are in office. The big contributions by large corporations (which have far deeper pockets than any of the other players) and very wealthy individuals, create a sense of obligation. [7] For example, Sheldon Adelson and his wife have given over $36 million to Super PACs and unknown tens of millions to non-profit groups that don’t have to report donors. He has a clear policy agenda and makes it known that he views giving to these groups, who then support specific candidates, the same as giving to the candidates directly. [8]

Third, candidates had to spend even more of their time than before raising money. This diverts their time and attention from interacting with voters and discussing issues. [9] The huge amounts of money in general, turn campaigns into an arms race. The unlimited outside spending exacerbates this, requiring candidates to build up huge war chests to be able to counter last minute outside expenditures. [10]

Finally, certain issues and issue options were not even discussed during the campaign for fear of alienating large donors. For example, the issues of global warming and meaningful regulation of the financial industry effectively disappeared from the presidential and many other campaigns. It’s hard to believe that the deep pockets and big campaign spending of companies and executives in the oil, gas, and coal corporations and of those from Wall Street didn’t contribute to the lack of discussion of these issues.

So why were all the spending and all the advertising less effective than was anticipated – and than hoped for by those paying for it – in electing specific candidates? That will be the topic of my next post.


[1]       Schere, M., Elliott, J., & Barker, K., 11/2/12, “Dark money rises,” ProPublica

[2]       Sunlight Foundation, retrieved 11/13/12, “Outside spenders’ return on investment,” http://reporting.sunlightfoundation.com/2012/return_on_investment

[3]       Boston Globe Editorial, 11/8/12, “Billionaires: Now, mind your own business(es),” The Boston Globe

[4]       Calvan, B.C., 11/5/12, “Spending on congressional races soars,” The Boston Globe

[5]       McGinty, J.C., 10/29/12, “Donors make last-minute investments in House races,” The New York Times

[6]       Eggen, D., & Farnam, T.W., 11/8/12, “Spending by independent groups had little election impact, analysis finds,” The Washington Post

[7]       New York Times Editorial, 11/10/12, “A landslide loss for big money,” The New York Times

[8]       Boston Globe Editorial, 9/29/12, “As super PACs link arms, mega-donors’ clout increases,” The Boston Globe

[9]       Eggen, D., & Farnam, T.W., 11/8/12, “Independent groups’ big money had little impact on vote results,” The Boston Globe

[10]    Eggen, D., & Farnam, T.W., 11/8/12, “Spending by independent groups had little election impact, analysis finds,” The Washington Post

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