Money won't win presidency but might buy Congress

Incumbent lawmakers and their potential challengers all realize that a deep-pocketed PAC could decide their races.

By MSNMoney partner Apr 26, 2012 2:58PM

By Ezra Klein


President Barack Obama's re-election campaign is likely to have more money than any presidential campaign in history. Republican Mitt Romney's campaign, when you factor in the super PACs supporting him, could have even more money than that.


Both candidates will, in other words, have more than enough money to get out their message, attack their opponent and support their ground game. Even as they're spending all this money on paid media, the campaigns will receive an almost infinite amount of free media from newspapers, television, magazines and blogs that will spend the next seven months doing nothing but covering the presidential campaign.


Yet at the presidential level, money isn't everything. In fact, sometimes it's not even the main thing. Note that Rick Santorum, who was outspent many times over by Romney, nevertheless bested him in a number of Republican primaries.


Just as youth is wasted on the young, money is wasted on the rich. Money is least useful in contests where news coverage is most intense and opinions are most entrenched. How many people do you know who still aren't sure what they think of Obama? Or are undecided about Romney? Probably not many.


But how many people do you know with a strong opinion on their congressman? Or on his or her challenger? Do you even have a strong opinion on your congressman? That's the kind of "low- information" race where money can have a big impact.


Although the effect of super PACs on the presidential race will probably be limited, I worry when I read that casino mogul Sheldon Adelson plans to pump millions into a super PAC dedicated to influencing the outcome of congressional elections. That's where an airdrop of a million dollars in negative ads in the waning weeks of a campaign can completely change the result.


In a recent episode of the public radio program "This American Life," Ben Calhoun tells the story of Ami Bera, a long-shot Democratic candidate who ran against Republican Representative Dan Lungren of California in 2010. Lungren has been a fixture of California politics for 30 years. Bera, a newcomer, wasn't supposed to have a chance. He began the race 30 points behind, but he kept closing the gap. And closing the gap. Soon, he was trailing Lungren by single digits.


Then American Crossroads, the Republican super PAC founded by Karl Rove, jumped into the campaign in the final two weeks. It dumped $680,000 into negative ads against Bera. An unknown quantity to many in the district, Bera had no time or money to respond to the attacks. He just took the hit. And lost.


Without American Crossroads, would Bera have won? Perhaps not. But it didn't help. "It clearly had impact and moved us backwards," he told Calhoun. "It went from a single-digit race to 14 points down. That's a lot to make up in a single week."


A similar barrage leveled against a presidential candidate would be far less effective. Romney knows a lot of rich people. So does Obama. If in the final days of the presidential campaign some hedge fund billionaire begins a multimillion-dollar assault on Obama, some Hollywood billionaire will probably help the president out. Either way, the ads would have a limited effect. By the end of the presidential campaign, most voters will have made up their minds. They're not waiting for one more black-and- white clip narrated by another grim voice to push them over the edge.


In contrast, even at the end of the campaign, many potential voters will know very little about their congressional candidates. They will be susceptible to ads telling them terrible things. Some of those candidates won't have the resources to fight back.


No one knows that better than the candidates themselves. Both incumbents and potential challengers realize that a deep-pocketed PAC could decide their race. So when they get a call from that PAC's director urging them to support this or that, they're that much likelier to listen. The result, then, isn't just that moneyed interests can throw congressional elections. It's that they wield more influence after the election -- and they can exercise that power without spending a dollar.


Imagine a super PAC funded by financial interests -- "United for Economic Growth," say -- that, seeing tax reform legislation on the horizon, makes it known that it will spend $500,000 or more against candidates who support limiting the deductibility of corporate debt. That's a small enough issue that most Americans don't follow candidate positions on it. It's an issue where there isn't an organized set of interests on the other side. And it's an issue where most politicians themselves don't have very strong or even developed opinions. My guess is United for Economic Growth would get its way in Congress without having to spend much money at all.

More from Bloomberg

Apr 29, 2012 10:24PM
The US Supreme Court ruled that money is free speech and corporations are people ! I never seen that in the US Constitution , have any of you ? But then the US congress is truly  the best money can buy . Thats so sad for Americans , because they do not work for the common good of our country!
Apr 27, 2012 10:16AM
Apr 27, 2012 11:34AM

My father use to say, "There is the ballot vote and there is the dollar vote.  People who vote with their dollars don't have to get up early and go to the polls on election day".


He  never voted in his life.

May 1, 2012 9:33AM

Corporate tax reform? The public knows about it. Congress just refuses to do anything about it because special interests have them in their pocket.

May 3, 2012 2:33PM
1. Congressional term limits (Senate - 2 terms, Congress - 4 terms)
2. Make it easier for 3rd party candidates to run.
3. Pass a law requiring that every ad run by a PAC disclose the source of funding.
4. Public funding of congressional candidates, including televised debates.
Apr 27, 2012 3:54PM

America Companies jn China control the Congress, Senate and House and they control us as they

want to.


May 5, 2012 7:05PM
As long as big companies can buy decisions made in Washington the average common voter has no say so other than to say I voted.Its nonsense to even think our vote counts.
May 5, 2012 7:02PM
Big oil and other giant corporations bought out Repubs a long time ago. These giant companies donate millions to their lobbist but then cry about paying their fair share of taxes. That tells it all,its a no brainer.
May 1, 2012 9:28AM
Then why do they all spent all their time soliciting  money. This smells like propaganda.
May 2, 2012 9:22AM

Well 3 states have ended the "corporation is a person" situation caused by the Supreme Court ruling.  Vermont is the latest.  The decisions in this country should be "by the people",

I honestly believe we "the people" should be able to vote on everything! Cause it  seems that very few sent to Washington, seem to be able to keep their values and/or have their own hidden agenda. And what they don't seem to understand is that all the money in the world will be worth nothing.... not even the paper it is printed on....when the whole world collapses.  It is very close right now.

May 1, 2012 3:00PM

This has always been so and always be and as much as I try I can not solve why.


Corporations or people you or I find or peg as bad influnces are not the only ones that support candidates.  By the way who do we consider bad influences: Men and Women of the Fortune 500,i.e., Gates, Buffett, owner of, selective news media, Unions, or every organization that may dissagree with you and me, or  perhaps all Fortune 500 Corporations.

Or, every voter who wants his "piece".


We have a Constitution very unlike the Communist Manifesto.

Apr 29, 2012 11:39AM
the only one that can stop the corruption is the supreme court.they dont seem disposed to do so.not to worry when we are all but destroyed theyll act.if for no other reason then they value their heads.
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