Rich People: Not That Smart

Most of us would agree that Citizens United has been bad for democracy, with corporations and wealthy people now permitted to spend as much as they want to buy the kind of representatives they prefer. But there is one factor that we didn't really anticipate, something that mitigates the harm they can do: it turns out that rich people aren't necessarily that smart with their money.

So during the presidential primaries, casino mogul Sheldon Adelson spent $16.5 million to help out the campaign of Newt Gingrich, whom you might have noticed is not the GOP nominee. And in today's New York Times, we get an interesting story about Joe Ricketts, the founder of TD Ameritrade, who is preparing to spend $10 million to defeat Barack Obama. And what is the magic bullet Mr. Ricketts has located, the zinger that will bring down this incumbent president? Jeremiah Wright! Seriously. Jamelle discussed the racial aspect of this story, but I equally interesting is just how naive this demonstrates that influential people can be. Ricketts is going to spend all that money to "Show the world how Barack Obama's opinions of America and the world were formed ... And why the influence of that misguided mentor and our president's formative years among left-wing intellectuals has brought our country to its knees." In other words, just about the same thing you could hear every day by listening to Glenn Beck's radio show or tuning in to Fox News.

The proposal suggests that Mr. Ricketts believes the 2008 campaign of Senator John McCain erred in not using images of Mr. Wright against Mr. Obama, who has said that the pastor helped him find Jesus but that he was never present for Mr. Wright’s politically charged sermons. Mr. Obama left the church during the campaign.

Apparently referring to a Wright ad that was produced for the McCain campaign by Mr. Davis's firm but never used, the proposal opens with a quote from Mr. Ricketts: "If the nation had seen that ad, they'd never have elected Barack Obama."

Indeed. If only there had been some press coverage about Jeremiah Wright during the 2008 election. If only the coverage had reached such a fever pitch that Obama had felt compelled to give a speech specifically about race in America. That would have changed everything, and John McCain would be president today.

This story demonstrates that you can be very rich and care a lot about politics but still have absolutely no clue how campaigns work. Mr. Ricketts seems blinded by his own hatred, sure in his belief that if only Americans get the truth about Obama's sinister background, they'll turn against him. And the people advising him, particularly the admaker Fred Davis who seems to be in charge of this effort, have zero incentive to tell Ricketts what a fool he's being. After all, Davis will get a hefty fee for producing the ads, and he'll also get a percentage of the ad buy, so the more money Ricketts puts behind it, the more money Davis will make (that's the way media consultants work; it's a pretty sweet deal). That means that Davis will tell Ricketts, "This idea of yours is genius! It's totally going to work. We just need to spend a few more million."

As I've noted before, there is no magic television ad that can undo a sitting president running for re-election. That's because people have pretty well-formed opinions about him. You can make a dramatic, surprising character attack against a candidate who isn't particularly well known by the voters, but it just doesn't work for the incumbent. That isn't to say advertising can't have any impact. But it's fairly typical of a rich outsider like Ricketts to think, "The thing about the President I hate the most is the thing that will turn all Americans against him," and if we just show them, they'll all agree.

So he should go ahead. If nothing else, his $10 million will stimulate the economy a bit.

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