Tomorrow is election day–and I plan to breathe a sigh of relief, not just because the polls suggest generally albeit not totally sane consequences, but because we’ll have a respite from the incessant ads, if not from the punditry. (The effect of Hurricane Sandy, the impact of Facebook and Twitter, the various Wars on women, immigrants, poor people….the one prediction I am utterly sure of is that there will be two favored theories for every one talking head.)
I’m actually working on a theory of my own. It doesn’t explain any election result, and it may well be proven wrong when all is said and done, but I think it’s worth considering. I think Citizens United may have backfired on some of the people who were most elated when the decision was handed down, the people who were so certain the decision would give them the wherewithal to win big.
What do we know now about the unbelievable piles of money that were thrown at this year’s election?
Well, it muddled a lot of messages. All those SuperPacs, with their own consultants and PR “experts” didn’t necessarily adopt the messaging favored by the campaigns they weighed in on. The result in many places was a constant din of competing ads that didn’t reinforce any particular argument or advance a predetermined campaign theme. In some cases, this actually worked against the candidates the SuperPacs supported.
We also know that a lot of that money was wasted. (I don’t care, but I bet there are some corporate shareholders who do.) Not only was money wasted on inconsistent messaging, it was wasted by being spent independently on radio and television advertising . Broadcasters have to sell time to candidates at a discounted rate; they don’t have to offer that favorable rate to SuperPacs and other independent entities, and they don’t. Giving money to the campaign and allowing the campaign to buy the air time (as was the case before the Court opened the money gates) thus produced a much greater “bang for the buck.”
There have also been a number of reports of last minute spending sprees by the SuperPacs in states that are uncontested–states where the Presidential vote is a given and there is no other high-profile race to be influenced. Maybe it’s a last minute effort to drive up popular vote totals, but I doubt it–at this point, everyone but Seamus the dog has decided who they are voting for, and even if they haven’t, the airwaves are so saturated, new ads are probably occupying that coveted 2:00 am slot that used to be Ronco’s. It’s more likely that this last minute spending binge is being promoted by the only people other than broadcasters who have really benefitted from Citizens United–the politicians, consultants and media buyers running the SuperPacs and 527s.
Perhaps the most ironic consequence of all, however, is slowly dawning on state political parties. As several pundits have pointed out, SuperPacs have nationalized the election to an unprecedented degree. One result is that state party chairs who initially welcomed the prospect of big bucks flowing into their coffers have found their own influence and control considerably diminished. (It’s the Golden Rule, fellas: he who has the gold, rules.)
When Citizens United was decided, there was considerable glee among Republicans, especially, who felt–not without reason–that the ensuing flood of dollars would mostly benefit the GOP. Many of the political people I know–on both sides of the aisle–believed that a virtually unlimited supply of corporate money would assure a Romney romp to victory and would grease the numerically probable Republican takeover of the Senate. Both outcomes look pretty dubious right now, although anything can happen between now and Tuesday; should Romney pull out a win, it will be by a hair, and at this writing, the Senate takeover looks pretty unlikely.
An old political friend of mine likes to remind me that, in contests where the opposing candidates both have sufficient resources to get their messages out, the guy with more money doesn’t necessarily win. If a candidate is gaffe-prone, clueless or generally unlikeable–or if he has a message that voters reject–campaign cash alone usually won’t fix that. Money can buy a lot of lipstick, but as a general rule, if people decide your candidate’s a pig, lipstick isn’t enough.
I hope he’s right. Right or wrong, we’ll know soon.