Ezra Klein makes the interesting and largely accurate point that the massive amounts of money spent to influence political campaigns today has far less influence in the presidential race than it does in congressional races.
Yet, at the presidential level, money isn’t everything. In fact, sometimes it’s not even the main thing. Note that Rick Santorum, who was outspent many times over by Romney, nevertheless bested him in a number of Republican primaries.
Just as youth is wasted on the young, money is wasted on the rich. Money is least useful in contests where news coverage is most intense and opinions are most entrenched. How many people do you know who still aren’t sure what they think of Obama? Or are undecided about Romney? Probably not many.
But how many people do you know with a strong opinion on their congressman? Or on his or her challenger? Do you even have a strong opinion on your congressman? That’s the kind of “low-information” race where money can have a big impact.
Although the effect of super-PACs on the presidential race will probably be limited, I worry when I read that casino mogul Sheldon Adelson plans to pump millions into a super PAC dedicated to influencing the outcome of congressional elections. That’s where an airdrop of a million dollars in negative ads in the waning weeks of a campaign can completely change the result…
A similar barrage leveled against a presidential candidate would be far less effective. Romney knows a lot of rich people. So does Obama. If in the final days of the presidential campaign some hedge fund billionaire begins a multimillion-dollar assault on Obama, some Hollywood billionaire will probably help the president out. Either way, the ads would have a limited effect. By the end of the presidential campaign, most voters will have made up their minds.
They’re not waiting for one more black-and-white clip narrated by another grim voice to push them over the edge.
In contrast, even at the end of the campaign, many potential voters will know very little about their congressional candidates. They will be susceptible to ads telling them terrible things. Some of those candidates won’t have the resources to fight back.
This is a very good point. But he also points out that this doesn’t just influence the campaigns, it also provides the means of using that influence to sway votes once the person is in Congress:
Both incumbents and potential challengers realize that a deep-pocketed PAC could decide their race. So when they get a call from that PAC’s director urging them to support this or that, they’re that much likelier to listen. The result, then, isn’t just that moneyed interests can throw congressional elections. It’s that they wield more influence after the election — and they can exercise that power without spending a dollar.
Imagine a super PAC funded by financial interests — “United for Economic Growth,” say — that, seeing tax reform legislation on the horizon, makes it known that it will spend $500,000 or more against candidates who support limiting the deductibility of corporate debt. That’s a small enough issue that most Americans don’t follow candidate positions on it. It’s an issue where there isn’t an organized set of interests on the other side. And it’s an issue where most politicians themselves don’t have very strong or even developed opinions. My guess is United for Economic Growth would get its way in Congress without having to spend much money at all.
That is precisely what goes on every day in Congress. And while that money may not have a huge influence over presidential elections, the influence over Congress does have a clear effect of limiting the president’s options. That’s why Obama had to include huge payoffs to the insurance and pharmaceutical industries in the health care reform bill, including abandoning the public option — not because those industries could have spent enough money to kill his reelection campaign this year, but because they could spend enough money to sway enough votes in Congress to make sure it didn’t pass.