Money Ain't a Thang?

To piggyback off of Scott's post, this is a really poor effort by David Brooks:

In the end, however, money is a talisman. It makes people feel good because they think it has magical properties. It probably helps in local legislative races where name recognition is low. It probably helps challengers get established. But these days, federal races are oversaturated. Every federal candidate in a close race has plenty of money and the marginal utility of each new dollar is zero.

This point would be a little more convincing if Brooks hadn't spent the preceding 800 hundred words misrepresenting facts about partisan and independent campaign expenditures. As Glenn Greenwald noted, Brooks vastly understates the amount of money being spent by groups like the Chamber of Commerce and Karl Rove's American Crossroads:

As the NYT reported on October 12: "The Chamber will most likely meet its fund-raising goal of $75 million, more than double what it spent on the 2008 campaign, Republican operatives say." It's long been reported by numerous establishment media outlets that the Chamber "has pledged to spend $75 million in this year's elections." What is the source of Brooks' claim that "the United States Chamber of Commerce is spending $22 million for Republicans," which seems to be off by a factor of at least 3?

And this is to say nothing of the fact that election-related spending by non-party independent organizations is up 73 percent compared to the same time in 2008, according to the Campaign Finance Institute. There is a lot more money in politics, and when spread among a small number of races, it makes a real difference.

But factual mistakes aside, I'm a little surprised by the shallow thinking in this op-ed. Brooks looks at campaign spending, doesn't see a big effect, and assumes that money must not matter in politics. But there's more to money in politics than spending. For starters, how a candidate raises money is at least as important as how she spends it. As I pointed out last week, "The dollar a candidate takes from his own wallet is different from the dollar he receives from a donor." Candidates that can raise money through fundraising are candidates with an actual base of support; successful fundraising can mean the difference between obscurity and the attention of party leaders.

There's also much more to money in politics than candidates; political parties are one of the few institutions in American life that have a real stake in expanding the electorate and increasing political participation. A party that relies on corporate donors and individual expenditures isn't going to take the time to mobilize and equip voters in the same way that a party funded by small donations might. Likewise, a candidate that can't find adequate support from her party is going to turn to corporate donors and wealthy interests, making her less accountable, and less responsive to party concerns.

Simply put, this column sounds good, but like a lot of Brooks' work, it's actually really terrible once you go beyond the surface.

-- Jamelle Bouie

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