Political Campaigns Are In the Business of Making Money, Not Winning Votes

Jeb Bush spent millions of dollars on TV ads. How'd that work out for him?

Jeb Bush spent millions of dollars on TV ads. How’d that work out for him?

Andrew Cockburn has written a must-read piece for Harper’s about big money in politics. Cockburn argues that while more and more money is avalanching into politics every year, and while politicians must spend more and more time on fundraising with each passing year, the money that is raised is not being spent on anything worthwhile.

As Cockburn explains it, it’s a classic negative feedback loop. Politicians hire professional fundraisers who are, obviously, interested in making a lot of money. The fundraisers encourage the politicians to spend a lot of time raising money. The money is then spent on television advertising, because the advisers warn that getting outspent on television advertising would be fatal. And TV news media focuses on television spending in part because they’re making a whole lot of money on it.

But the thing is, television advertising is ridiculously ineffective. Same with direct mail and robocalls. The thing that works best is human-to-human contact: phone calls, canvassing, and generally organizing a campaign’s ground game. Advisers and the media tend to scorn those aspects of elections because, well, they’re not where the money is. Cockburn compares this over-reliance on advisers and wasted money with the bloat in the military industrial complex, and he makes a compelling case.

This is obviously an unsustainable situation. Not only is it incredibly wasteful, and not only does the relentless fundraising prevent politicians from focusing on campaigning, but it’s also a case of the medium fitting the message. If a candidate runs an exclusionary campaign—that is to say, one focused on the wealthy and not interested in engaging large numbers of active citizens—they are more likely to govern with exclusionary policies. A good political campaign inspires a feeling of ownership in its voters. If advisers are focused instead on placing ads and talking at, rather than with, the people, they’re laying the groundwork for a politician who does not know how to engage with their constituents. This wasteful and exclusionary model is doing more than flushing billions of dollars down the toilet every year—it’s leaving voters out of the process.

Worse, these campaigns don’t inspire people to get involved with politics in any meaningful way. Inclusionary campaigns are how people learn that they love politics. How are citizens going to know they enjoy talking with people about policy if they’re not assigned a doorbelling shift for a candidate they really believe in? Where are the new generations of politicians going to find their inspirations? They’re certainly not going to learn about the importance (and fun) of retail politics by watching TV in an oversaturated political market. Rather than being included in a system that rewards involvement, the next generation of political leaders might instead be discouraged from getting involved in politics, leaving only the most unimaginative, and most money-hungry, participants in the process.

Paul Constant

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