The amount of money that is spent on US elections is ridiculous. Each major party will spend around the order of a billion dollars on presidential elections. The reasons for this are many. The fact that the date of the elections are fixed in advance means that a new campaign starts as soon as the earlier one ends, and even earlier, and more time correlates with more money. Another reason is that campaign finance laws are almost non-existent, thus enabling wealthy players to buy access and thus influence candidates via campaign contributions.
Andrew Cockburn in the April 2016 issue of Harper’s Magazine has an article Down the Tube (subscription may be required) that says that there is yet another factor at work, and that is the election-industrial complex of campaign consulting firms who siphon money and efforts towards the most expensive form of campaigning there is, television advertising, even though the evidence suggests that they are of marginal effectiveness. He says that these firms take advantage of naïve rich people who contribute huge sums of money and the candidates who work hard to raise that money.
Why is that? Because TV stations make a ton of money from campaign advertisements and they have a system whereby they return a portion of the cost of the ads to the campaign ad operatives who buy the ads on behalf of the candidates.
Curious to learn more about industry economics, I sought insider wisdom from Mark McKinnon, an affable Texan who has directed an impressive number of election victories, including George W. Bush’s media campaigns in 2000 and 2004. Obligingly, he briefed me on how the arrival of unsophisticated players has so greatly benefited the professionals: “The people who produce the media and buy the media get a refund from the television stations. In the old days, that was a fifteen percent rebate. For the longest time we would make deals with the campaign and say, ‘Don’t worry about this, you don’t have to actually pay us, because we’re getting compensated by commission.’ It never seemed like real money to the campaign, because they didn’t have to write a check to us, it just came back to us from the TV station, even though in reality it was their money. Meanwhile, the stations were making us rich.” He hastened to add that no such commissions were extracted by his firm, Maverick Media, during the Bush campaigns.
There is plenty of evidence that TV advertising, partisan mailings, and robocalls that drive people crazy during the election season have little effect on voter turnout or how people vote, except perhaps in a few cases such as bringing an unknown candidate to the public’s attention.
According to David Broockman, a political scientist at Stanford, multiple studies have demonstrated that such ads are essentially self-erasing. “There really is not much evidence that TV has a long-lasting effect on people’s views,” he told me. “Someone sees a TV ad on Monday afternoon, they change who they say they’ll vote for on a survey on Tuesday, but by Wednesday, their view has snapped back to what it was on Monday morning before they saw the ad, because they’ve just forgotten it.”
But one method does work.
Of all the ways to get people to come out and vote tested by the academics, one emerged as the absolute gold standard. Talking to them face-to-face, the longer the better, turned out to have a dramatic effect. This is known in the trade as the “ground campaign” or “field operation,” conducted by volunteers or paid staff, preferably from the neighborhood they are canvassing. It doesn’t come free: the canvassers, even if they are volunteers, have to be housed, fed, trained, and transported. Yet the effect is infinitely more cost-effective than any traditional media-heavy approach.
So why is this method not used more? Simple.
It is easy to understand why establishment groups might recoil from a volunteer-based, low-cost strategy. Not only does it offer little promise of revenue, it necessarily relies on people more committed and militant than those at the center may deem acceptable.
“I have never, ever met a candidate who did not profess a total commitment to old-fashioned voter contact,” [CREDO co-founder Michael] Kieschnick told me recently. “But if you look under the hood of the campaign, the candidates spend most of their time raising money for television ads. Candidates fear being told their opponents have an ad when they do not, even if it makes no difference. It is easy for consultants to raise money, for a fee, and then spend it on advertising, and get another fee. But where is the fee on volunteers?”
One might argue that all this money is not entirely wasted, that it pumps money into the economy and creates jobs. But the real negative effect is that by making campaigns so expensive, it discourages good candidates who find sucking up to wealthy people distasteful from running for office, and it does little to energize people the way that grass roots, door-to-door campaigns can do.