Advertising and elections

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May 13, 2013 by Tamara Piety

Another gem over at the Wonk Blog tells us not to worry, that all that money can’t buy an election and the evidence shows us that. Four reasons its hard to campaign your way into the presidency. The numbers are impressive. I believe them…to a point. Indeed, one of the few things reassuring to me about the 2012 election is that it is still not enough to just look presidential in order to get elected. Citizens United may have opened the floodgates in some respects (although they were open pretty wide already), but the outcome of this election gave us some reason to hope that image isn’t everything.

Yet one of the 4 “reasons” listed in this piece for why it isn’t possible to advertize your way into the presidency is that the news cycle and events sometimes overwhelms or offsets the advertising. This observation is made as if with blissful ignorance that sometimes the “news” is itself part of the campaign. Surely the author know that.

He observes: “while it is tempting to think that candidates can discover some secret sauce that makes their message irresistible, they often confront a public beset by ambivalence and conflicting opinions. Crafting a message that leverages the nuances of public opinion is tricky.” Yep. It is tricky. Not that they don’t try though. Is this meant to be reassuring?

He writes, “When both candidates and their allies have a billion-plus dollars to spend, each side’s efforts mostly neutralize the other’s.”  “So why bother to raise and spend all this money? The problem is that letting your opponent get a larger advantage is exactly what might hurt you on Election Day. No one wants to be Al Gore and lose the Electoral College by 537 votes. In essence, presidential candidates raise money to ensure a tie — or at best gain the sort of small edge that wasn’t decisive in a race like 2012, where the final margin simply wasn’t that close. But a small edge could be decisive in elections like 1960, 1968, or 2000.”

Let me see if I got this. Every candidate has to have billions of advertising dollars basically just to stay even or to provide that slim margin for victory if it is close. So billions of dollars for ….nothing?

I don’t think it is nothing. What it means is that a presidential campaign is basically outside the range of almost any individual to finance by him or herself. And while Obama proved that lots of small donors can add up to lots of money, he needed the corporate dollars too. And that money never comes without strings. And those strings are influence and access. That this time you couldn’t sell the sizzle without the steak doesn’t mean that we aren’t too close for comfort. Consider Frank Bruni’s Sunday New York Times op-ed in which he reports that a substantial number of people do not know that “Obamacare” (I hate that word) is actually a law (with the less sound-bitey name of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act).

This isn’t rocket science that money buys influence. You don’t need to be a wonk to figure it out. And this isn’t really a new problem in presidential politics or politics generally except in its. The fact that it takes billions of dollars to run a presidential campaign = large dollops of corporate influence. I think that is probably bad for democracy. It worries me. This article reads like a reassurance that we shouldn’t be all that worried about all the corporate money in politics.

I am not reassured.


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