One thing is certain about the current political campaign: we are going to hear a never-ending stream of media commentators exaggerating the importance of independent political expenditures because of Citizens United. This will come in a million subtle and not-so-subtle ways, such as the “news” story today in the Times about how the presidential election is “awash” in money.
As I and others have argued before, the media’s incessant beating of this drum is hardly a surprise. They prefer an election where media’s talking heads get to shape the story. They don’t like the competition. But as much as the MSM tries to shout down competing voices, most voters have little interest.
Fortunately the Supreme Court today gave notice that they are not inclined to reverse themselves any time soon. The Constitutional arguments for free and unfettered elections are so compelling that it is dispiriting that even four leftist judges still want to suppress political participation. But the Constitution long ago ceased having to have that much to do with Constitutional Law, so we should consider ourselves lucky in this case. At least the Great Decider, Anthony Kennedy, is still on the right side of this issue—for now, anyway. His opinions are generally pragmatic rather than principled, but at least he usually stands up for First Amendment freedoms.
But speaking of practical politics, how much does the money matter? In many ways, campaign spending is the dog that wouldn’t bark. There is a large amount of scholarly literature on this topic but no indication that spending matters that much. Big spenders win more races, but it is hard to identify the effects of spending from the effects of being a high-quality candidate (the kind who can attract contributions and be able to spend). In many races. one candidate vastly outspends the other but the outcome is still quite close. Or we have bad candidates spending a lot but losing badly anyway. It is hard to imagine that much of this “new money” is going to matter that much, either
And if money is so important, why do we see so little of it? Yes, I mean little. This was a question posed a decade ago by Ansolabehere, Figueiredo and Snyder, whose aptly title analysis in the Journal of Economic Perspectives was “Why is there so little money in U.S. Politics?” Since the stakes are very high, one might think we should see a lot more than we do—even now, in the post-Citizens United world.
To illustrate this last point, I made a table comparing the top 10 super PAC contributors to the top 10 grossing films in North America during 2012.
The Presidency doesn’t even come close. Even if this Presidential races ends up costing in the billions, it will still be less money than Americans spend at the movie theatres this year. (Of course some of those entertainment dollars will end up in coffers of Democratic candidates, so there is some overlap between the tables!)
We hear every day how so and so is going to spend 10, 20, 50 million giving to a Super PAC. Journalists speak in hushed tones about these giant donations, as if the world were being turned upside down.
Big Deal. One couldn’t make even a bad movie about the Presidency for that kind of chump change, much less determine the outcome of the real Presidency.