Seth Masket has a nice column out today on spending in the 2012 election cycle. The story is that spending has been, in fact, going up, up, up in the last few cycles. It’s hard to get exact measurements (disclosure requirements only began in the 1972 cycle, and in recent cycles outside group spending is difficult to account for), but the general outline is clear: There’s more spent now than during the heyday of full public financing of presidential general elections in the 1970s and 1980s.
That’s the good news: More spending means more information for voters. Sure, it’s not always valuable information, or accurate information, but it’s better than nothing. And strong incentives remain to bend, not break, the truth — even if it sometimes doesn’t seem so during the heat of the campaign. What’s more, with so much money available, there’s less to worry about in terms of narrow interests using donations to obtain policy benefits that otherwise would be unpopular. No rational candidate is going to risk getting blasted by negative ads to support a policy “bought” by an interest that’s supplying a tiny percentage of an overflowing pot.
The bad news?
The flood of money into presidential general elections is, mostly, wasted. But it’s badly needed elsewhere — in congressional races, state legislative elections and plenty of down-ballot contests. In other words, all those elections in which most of us know practically nothing about the candidates.
Spending is badly needed in many of those elections. It’s not just that it might lead to a more informed electorate. It’s the incentives. Easier money means better candidates — including challengers who can keep the majority party candidate honest in lopsided districts. It means candidates will have an incentive to bother preparing policy positions and defend them in public. It even reduces the chances of corruption; more campaign spending means a more public campaign, which means more press coverage, and a greater chance of being caught doing something wrong.
I’d be for partial public financing, focusing on those elections which otherwise would have trouble drawing any donations. But the best solution, to tell the truth, is just more press focus on everything but the presidency. Important as winning the White House is, it just isn’t as disproportionately important as press coverage (and, to be fair, most voters’ interest) implies.
Anyway, I won’t be upset that more money is being spent by the presidential candidates. But if you’re thinking of giving, the better bet is to go down-ballot.