There's Not Enough Money in Political Campaigns

There is not enough money available in the political cycle for candidates to get their messages out.

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Conservative columnist George Will famously observed that America spends more money each year on potato chips than it does on political campaigns.

In an October 2008 column, citing a report from the Center for Responsive Politics, Will calculated that the $5.3 billion spent over the two-year election cycle beginning in January 2007--$2.4 billion spent on the 2008 presidential campaign together with the $2.9 billion spent on 435 races for the U.S. House of Representatives and 35 U.S. Senate contests--was still “a billion less than Americans will spend this year on potato chips.”

It’s a striking thought. America has a democracy but, for all the talk of how much money flows in to politics, it’s still politics on the cheap. Part of that is because of the limitations placed on how much an individual can contribute, both in total and to individual campaigns. Part of it is because politics is still considered by too many people to be a dirty business.

The numbers for the 2010 cycle are still being computed, yet one may suspect that, even with all of the money spent by outside groups on behalf of candidates as well as in direct contributions, the amount of money spent on snack food will still be more.

[Read more about the 2010 election.]

Nevertheless, in some parts of the country, it may have felt like more was spent this year than in years passed. That’s because, as the Cook Political Report's Jennifer E. Duffy wrote Friday, “If you thought more political ads than ever populated your television viewing in October, it wasn’t your imagination.”

[Check out our editorial cartoons on the 2010 campaigns.]

Citing Nielsen data, Duffy explained that voters were treated to 1.48 million political ads in the final month of the 2010 campaign, “up from 1.41 million in October of 2008.”

Now an increase of 70,000 ads may not seem like much in the aggregate, but they are expensive. And the money had to come from somewhere--either from campaign committees directly, national party organizations, labor unions, private groups, or other entities nebulously labeled as “special interest groups.”

[Read the U.S. News op-ed debate: Is the Supreme Court’s Citizens United Decision Hurting Democracy?]

The high point, the Nielsen data shows, was the Cleveland, Ohio, media market where, Duffy wrote, “you saw more ads than anyone else in America.” According to her, “29,689 political spots ran in the Cleveland market, accounting for 23.44 percent of all ads run” during October.

“Voters in Columbus, Ohio,” Duffy continued, “saw almost as many ads; 24,693, or 23.37 percent of all television ads, were political.”

In one sense that should come as no surprise. Ohio is an important state. In presidential years it’s ground zero. This cycle there were competitive races for governor, in which Republican challenger John Kasich knocked off incumbent Democrat Ted Strickland, an open U.S. Senate seat, competitive races for various statewide offices, and a concerted effort by the GOP to take back control of the Ohio House of Representatives. Clearly there were a lot of people in Ohio who had a lot of things to say to the voters, and television ads are still an efficient way to reach them.

[Check out our roundup of editorial cartoons on the Republicans.]

Duffy’s breakdown of the Nielsen numbers showed the least numbers of ads were run in places that had few if any truly contested elections, like Jackson, Miss., Richmond, Va., Lincoln, Neb., Salt Lake City, Utah, and, of all places, Tyler, Texas--which is really a shame--because there were serious national issues being debated during the 2010 campaign. The voters deserve to be exposed to all sides of the arguments, including those made by partisans, not just by the ones who pretend objectivity in their analyses.

[Read Mary Kate Cary, Open the Campaign Spending Floodgates.]

The problem, in an odd way, is that there is not enough money available in the political cycle for people to get their messages out. With very few exceptions, many of them being labor unions and a few very wealthy individuals, most folks are kind of stingy when it comes to spending on political campaigns and issue advocacy. There are big ideas out there that need to be discussed--ideas that will affect the future of this country for decades to come. Isn’t that conversation worth more than what we spend as a nation on soda pop and snack food? The problem is that all the sides--Democrats, Republicans, incumbents, and special interests--are trying to use the rules to keep the other side from talking about their ideas. They want to game the system in order to win a competitive advantage, which is what McCain-Feingold was all about and what the Disclose Act is all about.

[See where Russ Feingold gets his campaign money.]

The problem is not that there is too much money in politics. The problem is that there is not enough of it, not for a nation of nearly 300 million with an annual GDP over $14 trillion and an annual federal budget that’s through the roof.

  • Check out our editorial cartoons on the 2010 campaigns.
  • See which industries donate the most to Congress.
  • See a slide show of 5 winners and losers in the 2010 election.