In general, there are two views regarding the role of money in electoral politics. The viewed espoused by the “good government” – or goo-goo – types, is that money distorts electoral outcomes. They cite the golden rule – “them that has the gold, makes the rules” to argue that those with deep pockets exercise disproportionate campaign influence. The cure, according to goo-goo’s, is to enact regulations designed to reduce money’s influence on elections, through some combination of spending and contribution limits.
A second perspective, however, views campaign spending as a form of political participation. In order to compete in the “market place of ideas”, candidates and their supporters must be allowed to spend money to get their message out. The Supreme Court, in its controversial 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision, seemed to embrace at least part of this second view when it upheld limits on direct contributions to candidates, but struck down efforts to curb campaign spending conducted independently of candidates. That line of reasoning was extended in the Citizens United ruling that protected individuals’ right to spend unlimited amounts independently even if they do so in the form of labor unions or corporations. That decision has led, at least indirectly, to an explosion of spending by so-called SuperPacs during the current campaign cycle.
For the most part, as my students have heard me proclaim through the years, I have long argued that the cure for the evils of campaign spending is more spending, combined with transparency regarding the source of funding. I say so not because I completely agree with the Court’s view equating independent campaign expenditures as a form of free speech, but from a more practical understanding, expressed in Dickinson’s Second Law of Politics, which states: “Money will always find its way to candidates.” That “law” suggests that efforts to minimize the flow of money into campaigns through legislation or regulation will always fail. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing – as long as the money is used to inform voters regarding candidates’ strengths and weaknesses.
We are seeing my philosophy put to test during the current Republican campaign cycle. Consider the spending in the runup to the Iowa caucus. Candidate spending on television ads was actually down this election cycle in Iowa from 2008, as was overall spending. What was distinctive, of course, was the emergence of the SuperPacs. As I noted in an earlier blog post, however, it was not just the emergence of the Superpacs , which collectively spent more than did the candidates themselves, that mattered – it was the fact that some 45% of their spending targeted Newt Gingrich, and it was spent just as he was cresting in the polls. The result was devastating to his candidacy – he went from leading the polls to finishing in fourth.
But critics of the SuperPacs often overlook why the spending was effective. It wasn’t because they completely fabricated Newt’s record – it’s because they exposed it (albeit in a one-sided manner), particularly his role lobbying for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Moreover, as Newt acknowledged, he had no real counterattack, in part because he was far outspent by Romney’s Superpac, but also because he could not escape the reality that he had in fact lobbied on behalf of these mortgage giants.
The Iowa lesson was not lost on Gingrich, or his supporters. In South Carolina, they have set out to fight fire with fire and so far, based on polling, it is having an effect. (I’ll deal with the polls in a separate post). Once again, SuperPacs are outspending candidates, this time almost 2-1, on television advertising in the Palmetto state. Although Romney-backed SuperPacs continue to spend heavily, however, the playing field has been leveled by the participation of Superpacs backing all the other major candidates as well. And that is reflected, I think, in the polls. Although Romney leads, the race has been tightening in part because of the influx of anti-Romney spending by other SuperPacs. Here’s the RealClear Politics trend lines (Romney = Purple, Gingrich= Green, Santorum= Brown and Paul=Yellow).
Although much has been made about the 28-minute infomercial now airing that criticizes Romney’s role at Bain, I think my personal favorite is this ad that accuses Romney of – mon dieu! – speaking French!
Perhaps a close second is this recitation of some of Romney’s past statements, culminating with his defense of his decision to travel cross country with his dog on the roof of his car:
Critics will contend, of course, that these commercials simplify and distort Romney’s record, just as the SuperPac ads in Iowa did to Gingrich’s. Of course they do. But the question is: how do you “cure” these tendencies? The record of past campaign finance regulations suggest that they are not very effective at preventing money from being spent on candidates’ behalf. Moreover, there is an argument to be made that voters should be allowed to make their own judgments regarding candidates’ records – and on the ads run on their behalf.
Is Mitt a French-speaking, dog-hating, job-destroying Massachusetts moderate, and – if so – does it matter?
I say, let the voters decide.