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Massive Surge of Republican Money in Last Ditch Effort to Sink Obama

Since October 17, the big GOP Superpacs appear to be outspending Priorities USA on media by at least three to one.

By eerie coincidence, the final seven days of the 2012 race to the White House began on Halloween. Even beyond the Frankenstorm, there’s something chilling that haunts these final days: the Ghost of the 2000 Election.

What’s scary is not just that the margin of victory once again figures to be razor thin. Or that the outcome of the popular vote may differ from the tally in the Electoral College, as it did in 2000. Nor is it even that all the machinations to disenfranchise voters by requiring them to produce picture ids and clamp down on early voting are likely to set off a wave of voter challenges, leading to litigation that could once again see the Supreme Court settle the outcome strictly on partisan lines and forever cloud the legitimacy of the process.

No, for 2012, the scariest thing about 2000 is the evidence that a flood of highly concentrated Republican money in the very last week of that campaign gave G.W. Bush a decisive edge in the battleground states  – and that contrary to reports in the national media, there are signs that history may be about to repeat itself. 

The little known 2000 story is meticulously laid out in a study by Richard Johnston, Michael G. Hagen, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson,  The 2000 Presidential Election and the Foundations of Party Politics. Trailing in the final weeks of the campaign, Al Gore began aggressively attacking Bush on Social Security. Helped along by news trends in the (free) mass media that the three scholars carefully track, and matching or even sometimes exceeding the Bush campaign’s ad buys, Gore rallied. He started climbing in the polls.

But in the final week of the campaign, Bush’ Golden Horde of campaign contributors unrolled their mighty bankroll, sinking most of the money into battleground states. As the three scholars observe, the result was a natural experiment, in which part of the country was saturated with political money while the rest was only lightly sprinkled.

The outcome was ruinous for Gore. Johnston, Hagen, and Jamieson convincingly show how in non-battleground states, where free media and Gore’s own ads were not overwhelmed by the last minute GOP avalanche, the Vice President preserved his momentum, eventually winning the popular vote. By contrast, in battleground states where the Bush campaign vastly outspent him and the Democrats, Gore’s comeback stalled out. “Where ad volumes – Al Gore’s ad volumes in particular at this point – were mounting, the Democratic candidate held his own for the rest of the month…Where advertising – now overwhelmingly by Bush – was heavy, there was no recovery; indeed in the last week Gore’s share in these places dropped two to three points.” 

This year the gigantic war chests raised and spent by Superpacs have plainly stunned many Americans, making them overwhelmingly receptive to tighter regulation of political money.

Curiously, however, all through the campaign, one commentator after another has derided the idea that big money might be decisive in this election. Some of these are drearily predictable, such as those in the op ed pages of the Wall Street Journal. Others are less obviously robotic, like Ezra Klein and Frank Bruni, though the latter did prudently hedge that “things could change in this final stretch.” 

Some of their skepticism rests, perhaps, on a deep misunderstanding. Big Money’s most significant impact on politics is certainly not to deliver elections to the highest bidders. Instead it is to cement parties, candidates, and campaigns into the narrow range of issues that are acceptable to big donors. The basis of the “Golden Rule” in politics derives from the simple fact that running for major office in the U.S. is fabulously expensive.  In the absence of large scale social movements, only political positions that can be financed can be presented to voters. On issues on which all major investors agree (think of the now famous 1 percent), no party competition at all takes place, even if everyone knows that heavy majorities of voters want something else.

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