November 25, 2020

Ever-Increasing Price Tag

By Stephen Tuttle | Nov. 7, 2020

At least some of it is now over. We won't be getting any more annoying, intrusive, and unwanted texts from Amy from the Biden campaign, David from the Trump campaign, Emily from MoveOn, or the rest who constantly invaded our phones. At least we could just click off the robocalls when we didn't recognize the number, but there is no escaping the texts. (And, nope, responding with STOP does not necessarily make them stop.)

Mercifully, the mailers have also stopped. If you're a resident of Grand Traverse County, you were subjected to a blizzard of mail from Dan O'Neill and, especially, his opponent, Jon Roth. Did they think maybe the 10th piece would convince us? Then what about the 15th piece? To be fair, the majority of that insanity came from third parties, not the campaigns themselves. Still, it was beyond annoying and stupidly expensive.

This had to be the most divisive, dishonest, and destructive campaign cycle in modern history. No lie was too outrageous, and no insult off-limits. If we listened to the advertising, we'd believe Joe Biden, Donald Trump, and both John James and Gary Peters in our own senate race were all going to destroy our healthcare system, all made the pandemic worse, and all fomented civil unrest and violence. The unprecedented bombardment of electronic messaging might not have influenced anybody or changed even a single vote, and it cost a fortune.

In fact, this was the most expensive election cycle in history, and it wasn't even close.

The Center for Responsive Politics, which keeps track of such things, pegs total spending for the presidential and congressional campaigns at a stupefying $14 billion. That's $14,000,000,000 — twice what was spent in 2016. About $6.6 billion of that was spent on the presidential race; the rest in congressional races. That vast majority, nearly two-thirds, was spent by third parties, not the candidate's official campaigns. Ten individuals alone contributed a whopping $640 million to campaigns and third-party organizations this year. 

So-called dark money made up a large chunk of that campaign spending. Let's say a politically active group creates For Us, technically a charity that can accept any amount of money from anybody. Then they make contributions to one or more PACs. The PACs must report they received the contribution from For Us, but For Us need not disclose who gave them the money or how much. That's the dark money.     

Supreme Court decisions have paved the way for dark money but also made it clear Congress or the states can require disclosure of dark-money contributions. So far, only five states have taken that step. Congress has done nothing. 

The obscene spending doesn't even include some 5,000 various statewide and legislative races in 44 states. With party control of legislatures at stake in several states, candidates, their parties, and outside groups will have spent at least another $1 billion.

We were not immune to the spending orgy here in Michigan.

The presidential candidates and their various acolytes spent at least $80 million here on television advertising, most of it for Biden. And both were nearly ubiquitous with online advertising. 

Both Gary Peters and John James raised and spent $20 million, and outside groups supporting one or the other spent another $40 million — double what was spent just two years ago in the Stabenow/James senate race. And we have at least two multi-million-dollar U.S. House races: the third and sixth congressional districts. 

Even the aforementioned Roth/O'Neill race for a freshman seat in the legislature was a million-dollar campaign.         

You might be wondering if all this money could have been put to better use. That's especially true, given the messages being delivered for all that spending became little more than mind-numbing gibberish. What started early in the cycle as an annoyance ultimately became an insulting absurdity. There was never a time when the mute button on our remotes got a heavier workout.   

Of course, all that money could be used elsewhere for any number of causes any number of people believe are important. But the people who contribute money to campaigns and groups supporting candidates believe they are giving to a worthy cause, too. That little worthwhile ever results doesn't diminish the intent of the contribution.

There have been complaints about “buying elections” for more than two centuries. And it's true enough that big money contributors likely expect something in return for their political investment, maybe legislation or a favorable ruling from federal regulators. 

There isn't much we can do about the spending since the courts have equated money with free speech. State legislatures or Congress could pour some sunlight on the process, but that would expose their dark money donors. 

Instead, money is a constant in our election system. The only change is the ever-increasing price tag.


Leland Noir

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