by Stan Cutler
In 2015 and 2016, Jeb Bush’s campaign and his super PAC spent a combined $138 million without any positive effect on primary elections. He left the field in mid-February.
At the beginning of June, three months later, Trump had spent $68 million, $70 million less than Bush. Does the Trump phenomenon mean that the campaign financing is a bubble about to pop? I doubt it. Rather, I expect campaign inflation to continue, much in the manner of ever-expanding sports coverage and the ever-rising cost of a basketball franchise.
There’s an enormous amount of money being made in the elections industry and, without regulation, media-politics is only going to become more expensive and proportionally more lucrative for the industry.
A super PAC (supac) is a financial exchange entity that collects donations for political causes. A plain-old-ordinary political action committee (a poopac) is like a supac except that it cannot accept donations greater than $2,700 and gives the money directly to parties and candidates running for election. Supacs spend their millions without using election campaigns as middlemen and without any obligation to disclose the identity of their donors.
Money managers in all three varieties of political entity depend upon contributions for their salaries. For those employed by campaigns, their employment is usually terminated when campaigns fold, although many of them immediately find jobs with poopacs and supacs, continuing to collect contributions. The owners and employees of media companies have permanent jobs. For all of these election industry professionals, politics is an ongoing competitive business for high financial stakes.
In every Presidential election since 1960, the amount spent by both parties has risen. As significant, in every Presidential election since 1968, the winning candidate’s campaign spent more than the loser’s. My notion of democracy is that it is, above all, a moral pursuit. A close association between politics and money is morally hazardous, inherently corrupt. I am deeply troubled by the way that money seems to be replacing votes. Is it a democracy if the winning margin is determined by the amount of money invested?
We’ve learned that the relationship between expenditures and election outcomes is not proportional. At the end of May, 2016, the Donald J. Trump for President Campaign (neither a supac nor a poopac), disclosed that 72 percent of its expenditures, $46 million, had been funded by the billionaire candidate himself. (Some observers dispute this figure, because the funding was provided by Trump-the-Person to Trump-the-Campaign as loans for which he can be repaid from the Campaign Fund. He is, after all, a businessman.)
When he dropped out, Jeb Bush’s campaign had spent ten times more than Trump’s. Carl Rove, the political marketing guru behind G. W. Bush’s successful campaigns, estimated that the cost of airtime devoted to Trump on “news” shows was, by the time Jeb Bush dropped out, worth more than $100 million.
I suspect that the Trump case is an anomaly, a blip attributable to his unique brilliance as a media marketer and the fact that his 16 competitors had to share the remaining 60 percent of the votes he did not win. Despite Trump’s relatively low-cost success in the primaries, the Republican Party’s ultimate one-on-one 2016 presidential campaign costs will be in the hundreds of millions.
The historical trend has been continuous for 48 years, for 12 election cycles. The trend suggests that, on the day after the November presidential election of 2016, we will again have seen a stunning rise in costs and a similar disparity between the expenditures of the winning and losing parties.
The bad news about Trump’s candidacy is not its cost, rather that it offers a successful model for garnering expensive media exposure through demagoguery. He has shown that audience share and ratings can be captured by being “politically incorrect.” It’s my hope that audience share and ratings are not equivalent to votes.
I am as alarmed by the amount of money going into media company coffers as I am by the amounts contributed by financiers. As with football games, elections attract huge shares of the audience and, correspondingly, the opportunity to sell more expensive airtime to advertisers.
The media companies profit regardless of election outcomes. By dramatizing and extending coverage over long periods of time, they stoke interest and increase audience share. Our presidential campaign “season” begins the day after an election is held. Gone are the days when we had respite to understand the import of events without sensationalism and the polarization that ensues when politics is promoted as a competitive sport.
Since the Supreme Court’s rulings in its 2010 Citizens United decision and 2014 McCutcheon decision, there are no longer limits on the amounts that can be contributed. In reaction, supac contributions in 2015-16 have already exceeded $1.2 billion, a fourfold increase over the $300 million collected in 2008, and we are still four-and-a-half months away from the election.
Our email boxes are continually bombarded by urgent pleas to use our credit cards to save America from looming catastrophe. About 80 percent of those contributions will be spent for media, most of it for television advertising. Most of the remaining 20 percent will go to professional salaries. (The data are available on openSecrets.org.) As the 2016 campaign progresses, telephone robo-calls will disturb our peace with increasing frequency.
The targeted emotional solicitations for money to win, to ensure that the evil other loses, clamor for our attention, far exceeding the number of policy messages appealing to reason. Trump has hired a new team of professionals to raise the hundreds of millions that will be spent to campaign during the general election. Clearly, politicians believe that our money is at least as valuable as our votes.
Fundraising solicitations are worse than distasteful and annoying – they are symptomatic of a decaying democracy. Both parties do it, neither Republicans nor Democrats more shameful, both complicit in the unregulated system that we have allowed to evolve.