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Money for nothing? The great 2012 campaign spending spree

By Andrew J. Polsky

Money is a main subtext of the 2012 elections: how much will be spent, who donates and spends it, how quickly it may be exhausted and whether campaigns have enough. Before November, we may spend as much time talking about campaign spending as the issues and the candidates.

Some of this is a consequence of the Supreme Court decision in the Citizens’ United case that effectively tossed aside a longstanding regime of campaign finance regulation and opened the door to flood of dollars. We are now engaged in a grand experiment to test the effects of unlimited “independent” expenditures on our democratic politics. But it would be unfair to pin all the blame on the Court’s literalist reading of the First Amendment. Even before the decision, campaign spending was on an upward trajectory. Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign shattered the record for presidential campaign expenditures.

With the dollars flying around, we need to ask about the impact on the election of all of that spending. Overall, the Republicans and their super PAC allies will outspend the Democrats and their associated PACs by a significant margin. Yet better-funded candidates have often lost elections. So long as candidates reach a certain funding threshold that allows them to achieve media visibility, the marginal value of each additional dollar declines.

It may help to view campaign spending from the voters’ vantage point. By this point in the campaign, most voters have made up their minds, at least at the presidential level. The only thing that will stop them from casting a ballot for their preferred candidate will be obstacles that impede their opportunity to vote — something that Republicans this year are going all out to put in the way of likely Democratic voters.

For voters who have decided, campaign spending is unlikely to have any impact. They will filter out opposition messages, while the ones slanted in favor of their preferred candidates will merely reinforce their preferences.

Add to this the fact that much of the country won’t be exposed to the ad blitzes planned by the campaigns and the independent groups. In my own home region, the New York metropolitan area, the presidential campaign remains largely invisible because the media market doesn’t encompass any of the battleground states. Moreover, since congressional redistricting has reduced the number of contested House contests, even down ticket spending will be modest. Across the country, fewer than a dozen states will be closely contested. Most of America, then, will be distant spectators to the media deluge that will follow the conventions.

All of which means, at least for the presidential campaign, that phenomenal sums will be spent chasing a handful of undecided voters in a handful of swing states. The Obama campaign made an interesting choice to spend heavily early (a record total of $400 million from the beginning of 2011 through 30 June 2012), seeking to define Mitt Romney as uncaring and out of touch. The approach has damaged the Republican, raising his unfavorable rating in opinion polls. But now Democratic donors are tapped out. Romney in recent months has raised more money than has the president, and the conservative PACs still have suitcases of cash to pour into the race. From this point forward, then, the spending will tilt heavily in favor of the GOP, both at the top of the ticket and in contested congressional races.

I side with those who believe that beyond a certain saturation point, campaign advertising ceases to register. Some observers argue that the lack of movement in polling numbers in states like Ohio indicates voters have already tuned out the campaigns. Nevertheless, the average undecided voter in Ohio or Florida will continue to be assaulted by a barrage of ads by each side every week. By November, the opposing messages will cancel each other out. Yes, for the handful of voters who make up their minds just before Election Day, the last few messages may turn the tide, because these will be most readily recalled in the voting booth. But neither side can gain a significant edge when both sides pound away to the end, like two punch-drunk boxers waiting for the final bell.

What may make a difference is not the money but some event that reinforces or resonates with the story that one side is trying to tell about the campaign. It might be a particularly strong or weak economic report. Or it could be an international crisis. (For example, on the eve of the 1956 election, Great Britain, France and Israel provoked a crisis over the Suez Canal that allowed Dwight Eisenhower to demonstrate a commitment to international norms, reinforcing his image as a steady leader in dangerous times.) Events empower stories. They make it possible for a campaign or party to declare, “So, you see, it’s just as we said.” No amount of campaign spending can have the same impact.

Andrew Polsky is Professor of Political Science at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center. A former editor of the journal Polity, his most recent book is Elusive Victories: The American Presidency at War. Read Andrew Polsky’s previous blog posts.

Oxford University Press USA is putting together a series of articles on a political topic each week for the next four weeks in anticipation of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, and American presidential race. This week our authors are tackling the issue of money and politics. Read the previous post in this series: “The Declaration of Independence and campaign finance reform.”

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Image credit: Macro shot of the seal of the United States on the US one dollar bill. Photo by briancweed, iStockphoto.

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