People seem to have a weird relationship with advertising. Many people will say they’re not really influenced by advertisements, but advertising is a $500 billion industry. Someone somewhere is getting $500 billion worth of influence and convincing.
This is especially true in politics. People say they’re not really influenced by campaign commercials, and that might be true in presidential races when most people – or rather, most voters – know a good deal about the candidates because there’s a lot of publicity around them. Congressional races, where the candidates’ backgrounds and records get a lot less attention, are a different story. I’ve heard pundits exaggerate the numbers, but the truth is still there: The top spender in any House or Senate race has a very good chance of winning.
The Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan group that keeps track of political spending, reported that in the six election cycles from 2000 to 2010, 93 percent of House races and 83 percent of Senate races were won by the candidate who spent the most money. Even in close races with single-digit margins of victory, the top spenders had the edge, 60 percent to 40 percent.
Admittedly, there’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem with the data. The ability to raise a lot of money could be a symptom of a candidate’s popularity as well as the cause of his popularity, and one could say the money wasn’t what won the race. But the post-Citizens United world offers us some powerful anecdotes to the contrary.
NPR’s This American Life dedicated episode 461, “Take the Money and Run for Office,” to the issue of money in politics, specifically in Congress. The show’s first act concentrated on the absurd amount of time that our elected representatives have to dedicate to fundraising, while act two told the story of Congressional hopeful Ami Bera. Bera was a Democrat running against incumbent Dan Lungren of California’s traditionally Republic 3rd District in 2010. Starting from 30 points behind in the polls, Bera campaigned his way up to within eight points of Lungren with two weeks to go. Eight points is a small enough margin that a candidate with momentum could plausibly cover that ground in two weeks, or at very least make it a close, competitive race, but then along came a SuperPAC.
American Crossroads, the SuperPAC best known for its association with Karl Rove, spent $682,000 on TV attack ads in Bera’s district. With two weeks to go Bera was only down eight points, but a week later, Bera was down 14 points. No matter how well you run a campaign, two weeks isn’t enough time to compensate for expensive TV ads.
Even with momentum on his side, Bera’s numbers took a substantial hit and sealed his loss. It wasn’t a result of Bera saying something unpopular or of the press uncovering some saucy texts from an intern. It especially wasn’t a result of the voting public researching him thoroughly. It was a result of someone else spending money on 30-second TV ads. Advertising has serious influence, no matter how smart you think you are. Okay, maybe not you. I’m sure you would have dedicated a decent amount of time to researching your congressional candidates like you always do, since you’re such a good citizen. But those other people in your district, that’s who is at stake when money enters politics.
In the previously cited numbers from the Center for Responsive Politics, 2010 was actually the worst year for the top spenders. I thought that was odd at first, but it might well be a result of SuperPACs taking up some of the spending burden. A Tea Party darling who challenges a popular moderate Republican would have a much easier time if American Crossroads could make a last-minute, six-point dent like it did against Ami Bera. When large amounts of outside money can swoop in without warning and sway public opinion so steeply, how could you hope to catch up? As Bera told This American Life, “… it’s like playing a chess game. You lay out your strategy and you’re making your moves and so forth. You’ve taken your opponent’s queen and all of a sudden he reaches into his pocket and pulls out another queen and drops it on the table.”
In presidential races, the huge amounts of money and publicity can be a buffer against shallow attack ads. Five million dollars is a drop in the bucket for President Barack Obama or former governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney, and a generous person might say we have a relatively good idea of their stances just from hearing so much about them. But in every political race, even ones where we don’t constantly hear news from our candidates or recognize their name (Quick! How many of Kansas’s congressmen can you name?), a quick and dirty ad can make all the difference.
Brian Hampel is a senior in architecture. Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.