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By Thomas Ferguson, Paul Jorgens and Jie Chen
Since October 17, the big GOP Superpacs appear to be outspending Priorities USA on media by at least three to one.
By eerie coincidence, the final seven days of the 2012 race to the White House began on Halloween. Even beyond the Frankenstorm, there’s something chilling that haunts these final days: the Ghost of the 2000 Election.
What’s scary is not just that the margin of victory once again figures to be razor thin. Or that the outcome of the popular vote may differ from the tally in the Electoral College, as it did in 2000. Nor is it even that all the machinations to disenfranchise voters by requiring them to produce picture ids and clamp down on early voting are likely to set off a wave of voter challenges, leading to litigation that could once again see the Supreme Court settle the outcome strictly on partisan lines and forever cloud the legitimacy of the process.
No, for 2012, the scariest thing about 2000 is the evidence that a flood of highly concentrated Republican money in the very last week of that campaign gave G.W. Bush a decisive edge in the battleground states – and that contrary to reports in the national media, there are signs that history may be about to repeat itself.
The little known 2000 story is meticulously laid out in a study by Richard Johnston, Michael G. Hagen, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, The 2000 Presidential Election and the Foundations of Party Politics. Trailing in the final weeks of the campaign, Al Gore began aggressively attacking Bush on Social Security. Helped along by news trends in the (free) mass media that the three scholars carefully track, and matching or even sometimes exceeding the Bush campaign’s ad buys, Gore rallied. He started climbing in the polls.
But in the final week of the campaign, Bush’ Golden Horde of campaign contributors unrolled their mighty bankroll, sinking most of the money into battleground states. As the three scholars observe, the result was a natural experiment, in which part of the country was saturated with political money while the rest was only lightly sprinkled.
The outcome was ruinous for Gore. Johnston, Hagen, and Jamieson convincingly show how in non-battleground states, where free media and Gore’s own ads were not overwhelmed by the last minute GOP avalanche, the Vice President preserved his momentum, eventually winning the popular vote. By contrast, in battleground states where the Bush campaign vastly outspent him and the Democrats, Gore’s comeback stalled out. “Where ad volumes – Al Gore’s ad volumes in particular at this point – were mounting, the Democratic candidate held his own for the rest of the month…Where advertising – now overwhelmingly by Bush – was heavy, there was no recovery; indeed in the last week Gore’s share in these places dropped two to three points.”
This year the gigantic war chests raised and spent by Superpacs have plainly stunned many Americans, making them overwhelmingly receptive to tighter regulation of political money.
Curiously, however, all through the campaign, one commentator after another has derided the idea that big money might be decisive in this election. Some of these are drearily predictable, such as those in the op ed pages of the Wall Street Journal. Others are less obviously robotic, like Ezra Klein and Frank Bruni, though the latter did prudently hedge that “things could change in this final stretch.”
Some of their skepticism rests, perhaps, on a deep misunderstanding. Big Money’s most significant impact on politics is certainly not to deliver elections to the highest bidders. Instead it is to cement parties, candidates, and campaigns into the narrow range of issues that are acceptable to big donors. The basis of the “Golden Rule” in politics derives from the simple fact that running for major office in the U.S. is fabulously expensive. In the absence of large scale social movements, only political positions that can be financed can be presented to voters. On issues on which all major investors agree (think of the now famous 1 percent), no party competition at all takes place, even if everyone knows that heavy majorities of voters want something else.
Myopic views of the complexities of political money compound the initial confusion. The full spectrum of political money is much wider than simply campaign contributions. But of great importance just now is the fact that the analysis of campaign contributions by journalists, scholars, and activists lags far behind the grim realities.
Let’s look further into why the pundits are confused. The major sources of data on political money are the Federal Election Commission and the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. Partly for understandable reasons, neither makes any serious effort to standardize names or addresses of people on their rosters. For less comprehensible reasons, though, both agencies routinely accept seriously incomplete reports and obviously inaccurate or misleading reports. For example, they let many business executives who are still active on the boards of large concerns get away with claiming to be “retired.” The two agencies also present their data in different formats that makes record linkage difficult.
As a result, the true influence that large donors wield in American elections is chronically underestimated. This was true especially before the Citizens United decision made it easier to see. Many investors maintain several different offices and residences in various parts of the country. Existing data management tools that try to match these up commonly fail to recognize multitudes of contributions coming from the same sources. In turn that nourishes illusions that small donors play bigger roles in campaigns than they really do. Especially where Democrats are concerned, the myth of small donors is a powerful instrument of miseducation.
In 2008, for example, the Obama campaign trumpeted such support. Eventually, many analysts caught on and began to question the claims. We have now reanalyzed the entirety of the FEC and IRS data for 2008. Campaigns are required to itemize contributions totaling more than 200 dollars from donors. Our best estimate – it is only an estimate – is that donors giving less than $250 represent less than ten percent of the record breaking sums raised by the Obama campaign (the campaign did also collect a certain number of unitemized contributions below that limit; these can’t be analyzed further). By contrast, we find that fully 61% of Obama’s money came from donations totaling above $500, with 38% representing total donations of a $1000 or more. For comparison, 40% of John McCain’s money represented donations totaling at least $1000, while contributions over $500 made up 63% of his totals. Our figures come with a major qualification: They include donations to the each candidate’s national party committees once they clinched the nomination, but they do not include the enormous amounts spent on both sides by so-called “527” committees and other “independent” campaign vehicles; donors to these were all far more highly concentrated. Even these figures, though, make it is obvious that neither candidate relied chiefly on small donations.
In recent weeks the Obama campaign has once again pointed with pride to what it claims are large numbers of small contributions. Some newspaper articles puff up these claims by sliding past the fact the formal campaign, like the GOP, uses its national party committee, with its much higher limits, as an auxiliary piggy bank for large donors to make substantial supplementary contributions. It is true that the campaign this time has tapped a lot of donors whose contributions are too small to require itemization. But in fact the itemized contributions for 2012 reported by the formal Obama campaign committees and the Democratic National Committee (which, to repeat, do not include the much more highly concentrated Superpac or friendly 527s) look surprisingly like 2008 – 31% of the donations add up to a $1000 dollars or more, with 55% totaling $500 or more.
Here is where the Ghost of 2000 begins to flit around. Not even GOP flacks dare suggest that small donations comprise the backbone of the Romney campaign. But the campaign and its allegedly independent Superpacs, such as Restore Our Future, burned through gigantic sums bulldozing the rest of the Republican field in the primaries.
As a result, until recently, the Romney campaign has been restocking, playing catch up to Obama’s well organized machine, which, be it noted, continues to bring in substantial donations even from Wall Street, though not on the scale of 2008. Along with the Obama camp’s vast expenditures earlier in the campaign to try to fix Romney’s image in electorate’s mind, this fact is the piece of evidence most commonly cited to disparage the importance of big money.
But it is plain wrong to suggest that Big Money is not talking in this campaign. As Johnston, Hager, and Jamieson noted, Gore’s final surge was fueled by relentlessly pounding away at Republican vulnerabilities on Social Security. Given the near unanimity this year among major donors that entitlements have to be cut after the election, however, that line of attack cannot really be exploited by Obama. And he has not. Despite Paul Ryan’s presence on the GOP ticket, the President’s campaign has reined in Biden and other Democrats who became aggressive on the issue. Social Security played little role in the three presidential debates; indeed, in the first one, Obama actually allowed that “I suspect that, on Social Security, we’ve got a somewhat similar position.”
No less importantly, however, in the first 17 days of October (the most recent full reporting period), the Romney campaign finally surpassed Obama, in collections by the formal campaign and the Republican National Committee. Of course, it has been far ahead in Superpac funding all along.
And while the money rolled in for the campaign itself, fundraising by other giant Republican vehicles, such as Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS, Americans for Prosperity, Freedom Works, and other groups has also been swelling.
In the campaign’s final stretch, it is impossible to pin down exactly who is spending how much or precisely where. Cash hoards and limited reporting requirements make that impossible. The situation changes literally every day and from day from hour to hour, as campaigns and Superpacs make more and more media buys of ads and transfer money around in complicated ways. There is also a lot of less heralded money sloshing about, ranging from still more Superpacs in formation to old fashioned 527 spending committees. We also expect the Republican edge in fundraising to grow in the final days.
But you don’t need a weatherman to see which way the wind is blowing. Superpacs now report major media buys within 48 hours. Thus one can directly compare late spending by Priorities USA, the Obama Superpac, with Romney’s Restore Our Future, Crossroads, and the other leading GOP committees. (Both parties have other Superpacs in operation, but these are the leaders that, with the exception of Freedom Works, appear to be spending substantially on the presidential race, though reported targets always need to be taken with a grain of salt.)
We sifted through them up through October 29. What we find is remarkable. The Ghost of 2000 stretches before us in full terrifying view. Since October 17, the big GOP Superpacs appear to be outspending Priorities USA on media by at least three to one – perhaps a higher ratio than when Bush buried Gore. Those funds are almost certainly being concentrated on battleground states, even, possibly, on a handful of counties within each.
It can be reasonably objected that the absolute level of spending in the 2012 presidential race will be far above the paltry $343 million reported for 2000. Perhaps the higher level of expenditures will better anchor voter impressions of Obama. It is also true that Obama is not a Vice President, but President, someone much harder to drown out. But how much will these factors matter? No one can say for sure – no one has any experience with political money on this scale. But with reports coming in that the Romney campaign is running massive ad buys that obfuscate his stance on the auto bailout and other issues, we can feel the force of the uncanny all around us.
Thomas Ferguson is Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston; Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, and an AlterNet Contributing Editor
Paul Jorgensen is Assistant Professor of Political Science at University of Texas, Pan American and Non-Resident Fellow at the Edmond J. Safra Center at Harvard.
Jie Chen is University Statistician at the University of Massachusetts, Boston