Revisiting the Role of Money in Politics

For a while now I’ve been suggesting that there are some shifts going on in the role that money plays in our politics. This is something we should all be paying attention to because it creates both new opportunities and challenges.

The first thing to notice is that the impact the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision is having on Republicans is a mixed bag…at best. Secondly, it’s clear that those candidates who have access to more money are not necessarily the ones who are leading in the polls or winning elections. As a matter of fact, for Republicans in the presidential race, the relationship seems to be almost the reverse. For down-ticket races, look no further than Eric Cantor.

Some journalists (like Gabriel Sherman) are starting to notice that billionaires are having a hard time buying this election. While others (like Nick Corasanti and Matt Flengenheimer) are pointing out that candidates are shifting how they spend their money. But almost no one is asking what has caused this shake-up.

To answer that question, you need to shift away from simply being appalled at the amount of money and start with something that seems obvious – how is it being spent? It has always been assumed that the role of money in elections was to pay for expensive television advertisements. More people are staring to notice that those aren’t working very well anymore. I’ve postulated that the reason for that started with remote controls, runs through things like TiVo, and is now facing the phenomenon of cord cutters and streaming. Who actually sits through a television ad anymore these days?

But regardless of whether I have identified the correct reason, there is no disputing the fact that the ads aren’t working. So its interesting to notice what Jeb’s campaign did yesterday.

Jeb Bush’s campaign is canceling its Iowa television advertising buy and shifting money to double staff on the ground in January, the final month before the high-stakes Iowa caucuses…

The larger context is that Team Bush is making similar shifts from TV ads to its ground game in other early states, too. In January, they’ll deploy 60 staffers from the Miami headquarters to the early states, including about 10 to Iowa…

Kochel said the Bush campaign’s changes will allow it to direct substantially more resources to persuading voters via digital ads, mail pieces, phone calls and conservative talk radio.

Personally I suspect that “mail pieces” are going the same route as television ads. When I was growing up people actually got interesting things in the mail (for you young ones, we called them “letters” back then). But now it is only bills and ads. All the interesting communication comes through our phones and computers.

So the future of campaign activities will be real person-to-person contact, digital communication, phone calls and – for conservatives – talk radio. In addition to that, we’ll see candidates exploit Trump’s mastery of what Mark Cuban called “headline porn.”

None of that costs much money (especially compared to television advertising). So what’s a billionaire to do? I’d guess that more of them will start doing what Sheldon Adelson just did when he bought the Las Vegas Review-Journal. No one has ever had a fraction of the influence Rupert Murdoch has on our politics via his media empire.

If you ever needed a reason to support the kind of independent journalism you find here at the Washington Monthly…there you have it. As the landscape of politics, money and media changes right before our eyes, it is important to ensure that publications like this continue to be available. So please click on the banner below and do your part to make that happen. Thanks!

Donate Now

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .