I recently interviewed Democratic Party fundraiser and lobbying Anthony Podesta; you can see his comments in the video above. In an era when many political observers, particularly Democrats, bemoan the influence of money in politics, someone who the kind of job Podesta gets a bad rap, but to his credit, he stands by his work and defends what he does. He also has a keener sense than many of the limits to the power that money can exert in politics:
People are smarter than we give them credit for. They don’t sit around and vote for whoever spent the most money or raised the most money; they actually take the measure of presidential candidates. Money can be important in a race for Congress where the only thing people… where people don’t know as much as they do about the president. The saturation coverage of presidential campaigns is such that people will get their information in a multitude of ways, from social media to the old-style broadcast televison.
Podesta’s take comes with its own biases; I expect he neither wants to pitch himself as someone able to usurp the democratic process, but nor would he want to suggest that people who write cheques for candidates he has worked for have wasted their money. Nevertheless, what he’s saying here is exactly right.
We give too much weight to the ability of the ultra-wealthy to sway high profile political races. In a presidential contest, both sides are spending huge amounts of money, and their efforts tend only to neutralise any advantage the other might have gained. What’s more, the presidential race is played out over such a large timeframe, and receives so much attention from the media, that it is immensely difficult for advertisers to shift voters’ views on a candidate. By the end of October of 2012, anyone who was going to vote had a pretty established set of opinions about Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. A few extra ads weren’t going to convince an Obama supporter she’d be better off with Romney, or vice-versa.
And that’s exactly what Larry Sabato, Kyle Kondik, and Geoffrey Skelley say in an excellent piece debunking the myths of 2016:
Despite the mountain of cash that will be spent on campaign activities, those dollars are unlikely to decisively alter the outcome of the 2016 general election. Without question, the increasingly oligarchical nature of American campaign financing is troubling, but the presidential outcome itself won’t be determined by the whims of mega-donors. The polarized American electorate and the partisan nature of the money chase ensure it.
So what impact will all that campaign money actually have?
If invested heavily in voter contact, cash can help a campaign better turn out its voters, since the lion’s share of the electorate is already locked-in. But donors often prefer their money go to something they can see and hear in their own homes, TV advertising, despite the fact the ads’ effect on voters is short-lived.
As John Sides and Lynn Vavreck showed in The Gamble, a useful recap of what actually happened in 2012, if one side had a serious advertising advantage on a single day, that candidate could increase his or her vote share as much as four points. But that kind of advertising edge very rarely occurred, even during Mitt Romney’s ad blitz in the final week of the campaign. And the boost from the ad imbalance lasted only about a day.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned about the distorting effect of money in politics, but it does mean we’re worrying about the wrong thing if we think the Koch Brothers or Warren Buffett are going to steal the White House for their preferred candidate. Where money is a problem is — just like Anthony Podesta told me — in lower profile races, like House or state and county-level contests. These receive far less coverage than national races, and undecided voters are far more reliant on other sources of information, including advertising. A rich and determined benefactor could really skew the results of an obscure House race if he puts his mind to it.
Fundraising also takes up time politicians could be doing more useful things — like listening to constituents who aren’t writing them cheques, learning about the issues, or doing the actual hard work of legislating. Politicians themselves hate doing it, even though they feel like they rely on it.
American politics would get much better with campaign finance reform that restricted the amount of money rich people could pour into politics and the amount a successful candidate feels like she needs to raise to win. But the reason isn’t because a handful of billionaires will decide who the next president will be. That will be down to the American people.