D. Dowd Muska


A Voter’s Guide to Campaign-Finance Myths

February 09, 2012

Pity the campaign-finance “reformers.” They’re going to have an unbearably irksome year.

“Super PACs,” advocacy organizations not (officially) affiliated with candidates’ election operations, will spend hundreds of millions of dollars in 2012. The combined expenditures of the president and GOP nominee might approach $2 billion. As was the case four years ago, Barack Obama won’t make use of the Presidential Election Campaign Fund. His Republican opponent will likely opt out as well, wisely rejecting John McCain’s doltish decision to accept taxpayer subsidies -- and thus, be embarrassingly outspent -- in 2008.

Government micromanagement of campaigns threatens to make the First Amendment a dead letter, but it aids three intertwined interests. The first is incumbents, who constantly game the system to hamstring challengers. The second is the dominant -- i.e., left-leaning, yet still-powerful -- press, which is comfortable with Washington’s status quo. Finally, employees of the nonprofits that claim to foster “good government” enjoy job security so long as attention is assiduously directed at America’s “broken” method of picking politicians.

Happily, what horrifies the election-regulation lobby is helpful to voters.

With November 6 less than nine months away, herewith, some debunking of the finger-waggers’ go-to shibboleths.

There’s too much money in politics.

Er … okay. What would be the proper amount of spending?

Between 1970 and 2010, while the U.S. population grew by 52 percent, Washington’s inflation-adjusted expenditures tripled. Today the federal government involves itself in everything from transportation to toilets, electricity to education, wildlife management to weather forecasting.

The 2008 campaign, reported POLITICO, “was the costliest in history, with a record-shattering $5.3 billion in spending by candidates, political parties and interest groups on the congressional and presidential races.” Sounds impressive, but it’s less than Americans shell out each year for “adult” entertainment.

As writer Tom Bethell noted, “If only people realized how much of their money Congress disposes of every year, they would rationally spend a great deal more than they now do to gain control over the massive redistributions that take place in Washington.”

Spending big guarantees victory.

Ask California Governor Meg Whitman or Connecticut’s new U.S. Senator, Linda McMahon, if this chestnut is credible. Oh, you can’t. Both vastly outspent their opponents in 2010, but were bested by double digits. The ex-CEOs ran on reddish platforms in absurdly deep-blue states. The ladies could have quadrupled their budgets, and it wouldn’t have mattered.

Research by unbiased academics has consistently shown that the ideology, demographics, culture, and economy of a state or congressional district -- not which candidate has the fundraising edge -- decide who wins. Incumbency offers a huge advantage, since it generates constant media coverage. (Ribbon-cutting ceremonies for projects funded with federal dollars are particularly useful.) Stiffness, gaffes and poor debating skills can be deadly for office-seekers, no matter how well-financed. Rivers of cash cannot overcome voters’ ingrained beliefs about their self-interest, nor can it turn not-ready-for-prime-time wannabes into winners.

Corporations are the most powerful force in campaign finance.

Perhaps the most inexcusable reporting over the last few years has been the media’s inability to understand -- or in some instances, refusal to accurately describe -- Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The Supreme Court’s January 2010 decision liberated organizations to spend unlimited amounts from their treasuries on direct advocacy for or against candidates. Yet while the ruling applies equally to for-profit enterprises, issue-oriented entities, and unions, the press usually focuses on how businesses supposedly benefit.

Eco-alarmists, radical feminists, welfare apologists, billionaire Marxists -- they’re as free to spend away as any member of the Fortune 500. (Despise a company’s electioneering? Boycott its products, and encourage others to do the same.) Long before Citizens United, Big Labor, armed with compulsory dues from captive employees, dwarfed corporate donations. The Supreme Court’s decision empowered unions to increase their political activities.

Even if corporations had as much power as their critics -- and clueless reporters -- allege, America’s business community does not have a monolithic legislative agenda. Does Whole Foods back the same bills as Dunkin’ Donuts? What about ExxonMobil and Tesla Motors? Saks Fifth Avenue and Dollar Tree? Intra- and inter-industry disputes are widespread.

Myths die hard, especially when they’ve been promoted by PR-savvy activists. For decades, speech-control scolds have successfully peddled the notion that the representatives voters send to D.C. are hopelessly corrupted by money.

The federal government is a mess, of course, but the way we fund campaigns is a negligible concern. The true problem lies elsewhere.

Want less money in politics? Work for less government in Washington.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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