"If men were angels," James Madison wrote in Federalist #51, "no government would be necessary." And if Americans were attentive and informed about the workings of government and current debates about policy, campaigns would barely be necessary. We could just peruse the documents on candidates' websites, read their résumés, perhaps watch a debate or two, and we'd all know for whom to vote.
Contemplate that fantasy world for a moment, then turn on your TV for the 6 o'clock local news if you happen to be in a state with a contested Senate or governor's race this year. What you'll see, of course, is a deluge of advertising, telling you why a person seeking office is either the embodiment of all human virtue or a vile character quite possibly spit out from the very fires of hell.
What's different this election season is the sheer volume of ads, driven higher than ever by the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision issued earlier this year. In striking down the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform law (and other precedents), the Court said that corporations and individuals are free to spend as much as they want to influence elections -- after all, as Justice Anthony Kennedy noted in his decision, "On certain topics corporations may possess valuable expertise, leaving them the best equipped to point out errors or fallacies in speech of all sorts, including the speech of candidates and elected officials." Watch the ads this year to see how that "valuable expertise" is being deployed.
Those looking for a silver lining have pointed to the Court's decision to uphold requirements that an ad's sponsors identify themselves ("Acme Corporation is responsible for the content of this advertising") -- though Clarence Thomas thought even that was too onerous a requirement. In practice, however, it has become meaningless. As anyone familiar with modern campaigns knows, it's much more efficient for a billionaire or corporation to hand their money to an organization with a friendly sounding name -- Americans for Goodness and Light, say -- and have it run the ad. Depending on which section of the tax code AGL organizes under, it may not have to identify its donors, and the money becomes safely anonymous.
In the last couple of weeks, Democrats have tried to make an issue out of the anonymous money. While polls (see here and here) have shown that voters say they don't like the idea and are less likely to support someone being propped up by anonymous ads, it's hard to tell how much of a difference that sentiment will make. The opposition is certainly being helped by the secret cash: According to one analysis, Republicans have benefited from $75 million in undisclosed money, while Democrats have benefited from only $10 million. Another analysis, this one of ad spending in the five weeks since Sept. 1, showed conservative interest groups outspending progressive interest groups by 9-to-1. The latest numbers (available here from the Sunlight Foundation) show that outside groups have spent over $170 million on the campaign, a number that grows by the millions every day. Conservative groups have the edge, but in the last week or two, labor unions have stepped up to help even out the balance. While there are some states and districts where a Democrat is being buried in an avalanche of negative ads from an anonymous group, in the end, the totals will probably not be nearly so lopsided.
As of now, House candidates have spent $843 million on their own campaigns, and Senate candidates have spent $519 million. So the outside groups aren't outspending the candidates themselves, but they are substantial players in every contested race.
Just how much of a threat to democracy is this new reality?
It isn't a simple question. One ray of hope comes from the fact that what these groups spend their money on, overwhelmingly, is television advertising -- the most visible kind of campaigning but not the most effective. That's because they don't have much choice. It's easy for Karl Rove to make a few phone calls to conservative billionaires and amass millions of dollars, then spend those dollars on television ads, all in the space of a week or two. But even if Rove wanted to, it would be much harder to turn that money into the kind of person-to-person contact that remains the most effective way to persuade people and turn them out on Election Day.
Television ads can have an impact, but they often don't. Political scientists who have tried to determine just how much ads in their various forms matter have tended to paint a muddied picture -- for instance, some studies find negative ads to be effective; others find they cause a backlash. Some find they suppress turnout; others find they increase it (you can read a roundup of these studies here). The reason is that there is so much variety in the messages of political advertising and so many different variables that are hard to control for. Two candidates can buy the same amount of ad time, but if one candidate's ads are carefully crafted and skillfully executed, and the other tells voters she's not a witch, the two could have a very different impact.
If there's a dramatic disparity in what each side spends, then money can be the deciding factor. Often, though, all that's necessary to reduce money's impact is for the outspent side to have enough of a presence to make things reasonably competitive. If your megaphone is set at volume 10 and mine is at 1, no one will hear me, but if I can turn mine up to 6 or 7, my message will probably reach enough people to keep me in the game. Furthermore, the extraordinary volume of political TV ads probably produces diminishing returns, as voters become more and more tired of the endless blathering and reach for their mute buttons.
Let's not forget that this is the first post-Citizens United election, and what has happened this time may or may not hold in the future. While rich conservatives and corporations are opening their wallets wide for Republicans this year, there will be a future election in which wealthy Democrats outspend their Republican counterparts. It'll happen at a point when Republicans are in power and there's a possibility that they can be ousted. That combination of anger and hope is what gets the checks flowing.
On Nov. 3, we will probably be able to point to certain candidates who lost and attribute their failure to the ads run against them by anonymous groups. But Justice Kennedy was right, in his own naive way, when he wrote in Citizens United, "The fact that a corporation, or any other speaker, is willing to spend money to try to persuade voters presupposes that the people have the ultimate influence over elected officials." Of course they do -- they're the ones who have to pull the levers. When they get swayed by a 30-second message (or by a hundred such messages) from Americans for Goodness and Light, it's partly their own fault. Unfortunately, the rest of us live with the consequences.