Jonathan Chait notes that a new poll has Mitt Romney tied with Barack Obama even in Michigan after Republican outside groups have apparently spent some $3.4 million there this year, compared with a big goose egg from President Obama and the Democrats. Chait wonders what happens if Republicans really do wind up with a massive spending advantage during this cycle.
One of the things a party can do with a financial advantage like this is force the other party to spend money it doesn’t want to spend. Obama doesn’t doesn’t need to match Romney's spending to win Michigan, but if he gets outspent, say, $10 million to nothing, he could lose the state. Republicans have enough money that they can dump it into safe Democratic states and force Obama to defend them. If it works in Michigan, it could work in other blue states, too. The point isn’t to win those states. The point is to drain Obama's resources for the states he really does need to compete in, such as Virginia, Ohio, Colorado and so on.
I’m skeptical, on two counts. First of all, I doubt there will be a huge disparity in spending on the national campaign. When all is said and done, I strongly expect the Democrats to have plenty of money for the presidential campaign. As much as the Republicans, including all outside groups? Maybe not. But I doubt the difference will be overwhelming.
But beyond that: There’s going to be tons and tons of coverage about both candidates from every possible outlet. Jay Leno, David Letterman and Conan O’Brien are all going to be joking about it, the networks’ news and morning shows will cover it non-stop, and on and on and on. An enormous number of people will watch the debates. Thanks to all that, there won’t be a one-sided information flow dominated by the side with the money, no matter what happens. And without a one-sided information flow, it’s not very likely that ads will move voters very far.
The real effects of a huge money advantage (assuming it materializes) are down the ballot, in Senate and especially House contests, and perhaps in state and local elections. A few million dollars in the context of a billion-dollar campaign that’s heavily covered by media and in the larger popular culture are probably meaningless; a few million dollars in an otherwise unnoticed House race could swing it in the right circumstances. Even then, however, partisanship limits the effects money can have (there are plenty of House districts that aren’t going to go Republican no matter how much the Koch brothers spend). The place where you really could see dramatic effects is in primary elections for House and Senate seats.
But the presidency? You’re not going to buy that. Money just has too much to compete with.