The best thing about last week’s election was that money didn’t buy it.
Though staggering waves of cash flooded campaigns, the best-financed candidates often lost.
That won’t stop movements against the Citizens United decision, movements aimed at doing everything from demanding transparency from funders of political advertisements to amending the Constitution so spending can’t be defined as free speech. In more than 100 communities across the country, including some in dominantly conservative states, voters approved resolutions calling for laws to end the equation of money with speech.
But the election shows that voters aren’t pavlovian beings who fill in the box on the ballot next to whatever name they’ve seen most often on television—or, conversely, refuse to fill in the box for the candidate they’ve most often seen attacked in ads paid for with so-called “dark money.”
That’s not to say that ads paid for with superPAC money didn’t influence the longer process that led up to election night, sometimes in ways that ultimately backfired against those who launched them. For his defeat, Mitt Romney has to thank, among other things, a wave of attack ads on behalf of in-party rival Newt Gingrich, prior to the Republican primary, that exposed Romney’s profiting from the outsourcing of American jobs. Those ads didn’t win the GOP nomination for Gingrich, but they did help Romney lose the White House.
In race after race, however, the best-financed hopefuls often saw fortunes spent on their contests to little or no avail. In the presidential contest, outside groups supporting Romney outspent those supporting Obama by $260 million, only to see their candidate do respectably in the popular vote while being buried under an Obama landslide of electoral votes on November 6. Other examples:
In Connecticut, Linda McMahon, the former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, lost the race to replace retiring Sen. Joe Lieberman to Democratic U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy after spending $47 million to Murphy’s $20 million.
Comments from Connecticut voters suggest that people who try to overwhelm the opposition with ads may find themselves up against the law of diminishing returns; as one man who voted for Murphy said of McMahon’s media onslaught, “I couldn’t take the advertisements any more ... every time I turned on the radio, she was there.”
In Ohio, Republican Josh Mandel, the state treasurer, got $22 million worth of ads from conservative superPACs, most of which came from groups whose donors are secret. But he lost to Democratic incumbent Sherrod Brown, who got $14 million in outside support.
In Virginia, former governor Tim Kaine, a Democrat, defeated Republican former governor and senator George Allen, though Allen’s campaign was boosted by $20.6 million worth of advertising to Kaine’s $17 million.
And in South Florida, U.S. Rep. Allen West, an outspoken Islamophobe who has said that terrorism is inherent to the Muslim faith—and that dozens of members of the Congressional Democratic caucus were communists—lost his seat to Democrat Patrick Murphy, though he outspent Murphy $17 million to $3.6 million.
It’s good news that voters aren’t brainwashed by repeated images, no matter how contrived, and reiterated statements, whether true or untrue. In that respect, voters are the real heroes of this election.
But the next test, some analysts caution, is whether the public will be equally perspicacious in seeing through the issue ads that will fill the airwaves as the president and the government take up the business of the next four years. As Fred Wertheimer, president of the campaign finance reform advocacy group Democracy21, posted on the group’s Web page November 7: “Judging the impact of the Citizens United decision on the outcome of individual races in the 2012 election misses the much larger issues that are now in play.
“Unlimited contributions and secret money in American politics have resulted in the past in scandal and the corruption of government decisions. This will happen again in the future. We face scandal and corruption in the coming years when Congress considers tax legislation and numerous other policy issues of great importance to citizens.”•