Liberals were outraged by the Citizens United Ruling that struck down restrictions on independent campaign expenditures. The Supreme Court ruling would allow corporations to buy the election outcomes they wanted, they said. Never mind that I, at least, never heard a good argument for why Congress had the power to regulate this speech. And can we please dispose of that canard that “money does not equal speech”? That’s like saying money does not equal food on the table. And it was the effect of the actual speech purchased by the money that liberals were concerned about, so implicitly even they admitted that money functionally does equal speech. They feared the outcome, so they were more than willing to persuade themselves that their tortured logic was just commonsense.
But what about that outcome? Presumably the Super PAC money favors Romney. According to a July Boston Globe analysis Republican leaning Super PACs had raised three times as much money as Democratic leaning Super PACS. The same month the Daily Beast, quoted David Axelrod as saying that his top two concerns going into this election were ” Europe and super PACs.” And in late August Mother Jones reported that “Conservative super-PACs dominated their Democratic rivals in the latest round of fundraising.”
However that money does not seem to be translating into clear electoral success. Real Clear Politics’ Poll of Polls, tracking a group of seven national polls over the period of 9/12 – 9/20 shows them averaging a 3.5 percentage point lead for Barack Obama. None of those polls shows Romney in the lead,* and three of them show Obama’s lead as outside the margin of error. Nate Silver, at the 538 blog, gives Obama a 76% chance at winning re-election. And at Intrade Obama shares are going for $6.97, while Romney shares are going for $3.04. If all that conservative Super PAC money is helping Romney at all, it seems at best just to be keeping him afloat.
OK, but the presidency isn’t everything. What about the Republicans’ efforts to take over the Senate? There have been reports that, despairing of a Romney win, the Super PACS have shifted more of their efforts to congressional races. But just yesterday Nate Silver put forth a gloomy forecast for the GOP, arguing that “[p]olls show key races shifting decisively toward the Democrats, with the Republican position deteriorating almost by the day.” This isn’t just the Todd Akin problem in Missouri. In three states where the Democratic incumbent has retired, Wisconsin, Virginia, and Connecticut, Republicans had high hopes of picking up seats. In Wisconsin, Republican (and former gov) Tommy Thompson has fallen into a tie with his opponent. In Virginia and Connecticutt, the Republican candidates (George Allen and Linda McMahan, respectively) are trailing. In Massachusetts, a seat the Republicans needed to hold, incumbent Scott Brown has fallen behind his Democratic challenger. And in Florida, where Republicans hoped to defeat the Democratic incumbent, their candidate is now trailing by 14 points.** So the Super PAC money doesn’t appear likely to create big Republican congressional victories, either. Contrary to predictions, money is not buying these elections.
Liberals tend not to understand advertising as well as they think they do. They tend to see it as swaying people independently of the quality of the product being advertised. (They aren’t fooled, of course, but most people are.) It’s probably true that a good ad campaign can create first time buyers for a new product, but it can’t bring people back to a product they’ve tried and disliked. I have a friend in the advertising business who told me some years back that one of the major beer companies had done a $400 million ad campaign the year before…and not achieved any increase in their market share.
You have to have a good product to sell, and the evidence suggests that there are a lot of Americans who don’t like the Republican product. Conservative Super PACS can advertise all they want, but they’re not selling an unknown product to first-time buyers. Even though Mitt’s a first-time presidential nominee, he’s not representing a new product to the public (we all know Tea Party preferences by now), there is real information about him that advertising can’t obliterate, and his packaging is just godawful. If ever there was a presidential candidate who looked like a “Generic Brand” can of soup, it’s Mitt Romney.***
This doesn’t mean money is irrelevant; there’s no winning without it. But more money does not translate directly into one-to-win wins. This is especially true, it seems, for self-funded candidates. In fact it’s possible Republicans have a built-in disadvantage in their corporate money advantage–the public may tend to see it as confirmation that Republicans are just in the hip pocket of big business and react negatively.
Can we all please just stop worrying now about Citizens United, and get back to appreciating our First Amendment freedoms?
*Gallup does show the candidates tied, but while it has the largest sample size by far, it is polling registered voters. By contrast, Pew, with the second largest sample size is polling likely voters and showing Obama by +8. Make of that what you will.
**When donors pulled their support from Todd Akin in response to his claim that real rape does not result in pregnancy, many folks assumed the support would come back when the furor died down, because the Republicans desperately needed to re-take that seat to have a chance at regaining control of the Senate. The money hasn’t come back, leaving many people puzzled. I think the struggles in other states explains why–at this point retaking control of the Senate may be a lost hope, so support needs to go to the best candidates, those who both have a chance of winning and don’t reflect so badly on your party.
***Romney is the Warren Harding of our era. He just looks so damn presidential. Harding, however, had the luxury of running in an era where candidates didn’t have to put themselves out in the public view.