The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mega-blitz of ad spending makes it easier for candidates to lie

Today the New York Times reports that Republicans are benefiting from a money surge that could give them a boost in all those tight Senate races, and the article probably brought a smile to many Republican faces. The truth is that it’s probably too late for money in these amounts to change much of anything either way.

But this is significant, because it highlight how current campaigns are now getting hit by such a massive blizzard of spending and advertising that for candidates, accountability has become all but impossible and deception carries no meaningful risk.

Here’s an excerpt from the article:

All told, in seven races for which both Democrats and Republicans provided complete fund-raising totals by Wednesday evening — Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan and North Carolina — Republicans held more cash in six of them, with a net advantage of about $7 million. At the same time, Democrats had booked more advertising from Sept. 29 through Election Day in at least five of those races, with the biggest advantages in North Carolina and Iowa, according to a Republican tracking media purchases.
In Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia and Iowa, Republican contenders posted their best fund-raising quarter of the year. In Iowa, the Republican candidate, Joni Ernst, who narrowly leads in polling, raised $6 million, more than double the amount taken in by her Democratic opponent, Representative Bruce Braley, and reported three times as much in cash on hand than Mr. Braley. Representative Tom Cotton of Arkansas reported raising $3.8 million, far more than the Democratic incumbent, Senator Mark Pryor, who took in $2.2 million. In Colorado, Representative Cory Gardner raised $4.5 million and reported $1.4 million more in cash on hand than Senator Mark Udall, the Democratic incumbent.

If you don’t live in one of these states it may be hard to appreciate the incredible volume of political ads television viewers have already endured in recent months. A count from the Wesleyan Media Project of television ads shows that in just one week, some 14,000 ads were aired in North Carolina, 13,000 in Iowa, 11,000 in Kentucky, and so on. Buying a few hundred more ads in one of these states is like walking up to people who have been standing in the middle of a monsoon and firing a squirt gun at them.

Meanwhile, the total spending so far in these races is enormous, as these data from the Center for Responsive Politics show:

By the time the race is over, the spending in, for example, North Carolina will probably total at least $75 million. Is another million or two going to be transformative? Probably not.

The important thing here is that all of this spending makes real accountability a lot harder. The candidates know that any forum where they might actually be held accountable will inevitably be drowned out by all the ads. For instance, in a debate yesterday Cory Gardner had to endure a grilling by a couple of obviously exasperated reporters over the fact that Gardner keeps denying that the “Personhood” bill he sponsored in Congress actually does what it says it does. He bobbed and weaved, and the footage looks really bad. But is Gardner particularly worried? I doubt it. He’s up by a couple of points in the polls, and how many people actually watched that debate? He has thousands of opportunities to get his message out his way.

Nor, I suspect, is Mitch McConnell worried that he’ll pay a price for trying to fool people in Kentucky into thinking that you can repeal the Affordable Care Act “root and branch,” but they’ll still get to keep Kynect, the hugely successful ACA exchange. Voters don’t understand the distinction, and the media aren’t helping them get it. In the post-Citizens United world, there’s little to fear, so long as you and your allies have the money.

That isn’t to say that the media couldn’t impose some accountability if they truly wanted to. But it would take an agreement that a particular issue is important enough to warrant intense, repeated attention. And that, apparently, is something they only do for things that have little or no substantive importance, like whether a candidate will say who she voted for.

Thirty years ago, George H.W. Bush’s press secretary Peter Teeley was asked by a reporter about a lie Bush had told during his debate with Geraldine Ferraro. “You can say anything you want during a debate, and 80 million people hear it,” he said. And if reporters then correct the falsehood? “So what?” Teeley responded. “‘Maybe 200 people read it or 2,000 or 20,000.”

The principle today is the same, but the information environment has changed. Candidates are no more afraid of accountability than they were, but now it’s because they’re drowning voters in advertising. And they can still say anything they want.