Howard Dean announced today a new effort targeted at winning Democratic control of state legislatures, beginning with Virginia’s off-year elections. It’s not a huge money commitment, and of course we’ll have to see if it pans out (it’s one thing to announce plans; it’s another to implement them). But it’s also a relatively rare development over the last few years of the new campaign finance regime.
In principle, I’m for floors-not-ceilings when it comes to money in elections — that is, I’d like to see some form of public financing to assure serious major party candidacies in, say, every congressional district. Beyond that, I don’t see much reason to limit contributions or expenditures. Why not? Well, beyond free speech justifications, the practical side of it is that campaign expenditures have diminishing returns. We saw that in the Republican primaries in 2012; outrageous sums dropped by the likes of Sheldon Adelson utterly failed to purchase the nomination.
At the same time, it seems to me that most elections in the US are underfunded, not overfunded. Quick: What do you know about the state legislative candidates in your district last year? The city council candidates? Most of them do little more than get their names out. And that’s even true of House candidates; as important as they are, most of us known virtually nothing about them. Granted, more spending means that part of the “education” we’ll be getting will be distortions and lies, but overall more campaign spending does, in fact, lead to more informed choices.
And yet mostly what the new campaign finance regime has done, alas, is to just mean even more money goes into the same handful of contests as always — especially presidential elections, where most of it is almost certainly wasted.
So kudos to Dean for attempting to find something useful to do with campaign money. I’m hoping it pushes more PACs and individual donors from both parties to make similar commitments. The presidential campaigns will get along just fine with even a tenth of the money they spent in 2012. Getting some money into down-ballot races is both a more useful way to use your resources, and good for democracy to boot.