The Government We Deserve

This may be the most expensive midterm election in history, but it isn't necessarily the dumbest. That's not because it's smart in any way, just that elections in America are always dumb. To take just one tiny data point, the hottest Senate race in the country may be in Iowa, where everything turns on just how mad the Democratic candidate got when his neighbor's chickens kept crapping in his yard. Madison and Jefferson would be so proud.

Commentators with brows set high and low periodically try to redeem a public that falls for this kind of stuff, with varying degrees of success. Political scientists often point out that accumulating detailed political knowledge is an inefficient use of time, when you can just use party identification as a proxy and almost all the time your decisions will be the same as they would if you knew as much as the most addicted political junkie. Perfectly true. But other attempts are less successful. I point your attention to a piece today in the Times by Lynn Vavreck, an extremely smart person, arguing that political ads aren't necessarily so bad. From what I can tell it's only about three-quarters serious, but still:

A functioning democracy needs an electorate that makes informed choices. Much as we dislike them, political ads, especially in midterm elections, convey information to voters about candidates, particularly those who are unknown to most people.

For example, evidence from recent midterm elections showed that in places where candidates advertised with greater frequency, voters on average knew more objective things about the candidate. The effects are notable for something as straightforward as helping voters identify who is actually running in the race. And just like campaign spending generally, challengers' ads have greater impact than those of incumbents.

The evidence she's able to marshall all comes from studies where the dependent variable is knowing who the candidates are. That TV ads can produce this kind of "knowledge" isn't surprising — if you saw 500 ads saying, "Congressional candidate John Beelzeberg: He'd eat your children if he got the chance," by the end you'd probably know that John Beelzeberg is running for Congress.

And it's surely important to know who the candidates are. But if that's about all we can expect of voters, it's pathetic.

Meanwhile, Mark Leibovich has a useful essay about the "bumpkinification" of the midterms, in which every contender competes to claim the mantle of the most inexperienced candidate who knows nothing about what legislators actually do, and will somehow "change Washington" with their down-home common sense:

Candidates themselves don't deserve all the blame for their bumpkinizing. Much of that rests with the blizzards of money being blown from wealthy donors and super PACs to a growing oligarchy of media consultants, who typically live on the coasts and work for multiple candidates at once. In a D.C. twist, those bumpkins we see on our screens are often not even real bumpkins so much as some rich guy's idea of what a bumpkin should be. One telltale signal is how familiar the props are—the livestock, the guns, the motorcycles, the dogs and, of course, the flannel. An ad for Rob Maness, a Louisiana Republican running for the Senate, features a trifecta: a gun, an airboat and an alligator.

In large part, this is what we have to show for the nearly $4 billion that is expected to be spent in this campaign, the most of any midterm election in history. "When you have this much outside spending, way too much of the advertising has no soul," acknowledged Todd Harris, a partner at Something Else Strategies, who is based in Washington, far from his clients Ernst and McFadden. The people who are creating these spots, in other words, don't have much connection to the state they're working in. It's a good bet that few at Something Else Strategies have spent much time on hog farms. They are paid either way.

I wouldn't want to excuse Washington consultants, but let's not forget that responsibility is not zero-sum. Everybody who takes part in this is to blame. There are the candidates, who serve up a ten-course meal of drivel. There are the outside groups that swoop in and try desperately to distract and confuse. There are the reporters who decide that it's really important that they write another ten stories about somebody's chickens or somebody else's "gaffe."

But in the end, ultimate responsibility lies with the voters themselves. It is within their power to say to candidates, "Look, I'm upset about Congress' inability to solve problems too, but the fact that you put on a flannel shirt and told me a story about the wisdom of your grandpappy does nothing to convince me you'll actually be able to solve those problems." They could do that. But they don't. 

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