Political Spending and its Apparent Consequences

July 28, 2014
posted by Bob Bauer

The New York Times this morning reports on political spending in this election cycle, but it also wishes to explain to readers the meaning of all these dollars. So the article this morning about the money going into Senate and House races links the cash to “consequences [that] are already becoming apparent”: candidate loss of control over their messaging and a sharply negative tone. The grounds for these conclusions are not drawn from the the numbers.  They are added on.

Note that a contradiction is now entering into the discussion of Super PACs and outside independent activity.  One of two things can be true but not both: either the “shadow parties” or candidate-affiliated organizations are synchronizing their messages with the candidates’, or they are operating independently and crowding out the candidate’s communications. The Times puts both explanations into its story.  We have both loss of control and “laserlike” precision and consistency in candidate and outside group advertising aimed at the opposition.

On the topic of negativity, the Times assumes that the harshness of tone can be attributed to developments in campaign finance.  There is just as good if not better reason to consider the effect of historically low approvals of Congress, a polarized electorate, high levels of voter dissatisfaction, the effectiveness of negative advertising, and perhaps other factors.  Money amplifies the negative message, one could agree: it is not the cause of it.  Candidates may be pleased to let independent groups  share the task of negative messaging, but they pitch in.  It is well understood by now that “stand by your ad” and other measures to rein in candidate “attack” politics have had little effect.

And then there is the effect in the aggregate of all this spending.  Here again, the story this morning raises the question of which of two alternatives the Times holds to be true.  All these ads are described in the article as having a momentous in impact on races, but also as a poor return on investment, as voters pay less attention to the flood of broadcast material.  Are the voters turned off by the ads, rejecting engagement with the elections, or just “tuning out” this high-volume, negative noise?

There are, of course, “consequences” to the strange shape and operation of the campaign finance rules.  The Times story presents the ones believed to be “apparent,” but not persuasively.

Category: Outside Groups

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