What does all this money, in the most well-funded presidential race ever, buy?
There's the $750m for the president; $800m for Mitt Romney; and then there's a couple of hundred more in Super Pac funds.
What do the people putting up all this dough in politics actually get? Or maybe a better question: how do people keep falling for this?
Here are the political contributions I have made:
I have a Democratic private equity friend in Massachusetts who set out to build a political career. He was richer than me by a factor of probably 100, and yet, as reliably as the rain, he was back over and over again to ask for checks. (I'd once heard that the governor of Massachusetts could get anyone he wanted into Harvard, so I told myself I wrote these checks for my children.) But he never won – and yet, unfortunately, and on my dime, he persisted. I wrote check after check so he could run, and lose, and come back for more.
My other check was to Bill Clinton in 1992. I wanted something specific: a blurb for a book I had written. I knew a top fundraiser for the campaign who said that if I maxed out the individual contribution, he'd take my request for a blurb directly to the candidate – done deal, he said. The last time I saw him, he was putting my folded check into his wallet.
The next day, he was, tragically, killed in a plane crash. But not before having deposited my check. So, no blurb and no thank you – but, along with thousands of others, I did get my one-and-only inaugural invitation.
"...the media stokes the fires of political acrimony while directly profiting from it."
Sheldon Adelson has been one of the big spenders during this campaign (by some estimates, his spend may go to $100m), first for Newt Gingrich, and now for Romney, accompanying the Republican candidate and his entourage on their recent trip to Israel. This might be what Adelson wants: some big-man travel, some personal press, a sense of bully-boy insinuation into Israel-US relations, some faith-based pride. But does he get real influence?
It surely doesn't seem like a match: the self-made Jewish gambling magnate and the upper-class Mormon teetotaler. Let's be practical: what Adelson becomes, with his political investment, is a monster pain in the ass for the Romney people. Politicians spend the same amount of time raising money as they do giving the slip to the people who gave it to them. Precisely because Adelson will think he's owed big, he'll be avoided, mocked, handled, by a Romney White House (if it comes to that). Dollars to donuts, bitterness is what Adelson will get.
Still, at his age and with his $25bn, it may be something of a cheap and final public splash for him (many of the biggest campaign donors are old men). But even here, I'll bet this turns to ash: there isn't much press for donors after an election. (But, count on it, he'll keep getting called for more money.)
Do Romney's Bain supporters fair better? Or is Romney the burden they uniquely bear?
The strategy for all the private equity guys I have known – unless, like my friend, and like Mitt Romney, they want to get into politics – is to fly under the radar. Press isn't good for private equity. As President Obama is now betting, there's really no way for most people to understand the PE business – and even less of a chance that they will be sympathetic to it. So, even if Romney wins, and private equity gets a finance-friendly White House, what it has also bought with its millions of dollars in support is a vastly increased branding problem.
Still, for donors, there is the feeling of engagement in a great national contest, isn't there? Contributing a few dollars, or a few thousand dollars – or, if you have billions, its many-millions equivalent – represents a kind of interactivity. You're part of the whole. You signify. You've reached out. You matter.
It's like posting a comment on the internet. And yet, really, how many commenters seem like satisfied and mellow people? Rather, engagement of this sort seems demonstrably an activity of the angry, hostile, begrudging, and dyspeptic. My guess is that what animates an internet commenter is very similar to what compels most campaign contributors to write a check: I give because I'm mad. Clearly, all campaign advertising strategies are guided by the premise that the negative is a stronger call to action than the positive.
Politics is the province of the unhappy and querulous; perhaps all the more so because, having paid, people feel particularly gypped. (Or having paid, they feel they are entitled to their self-expression.) The manifest disappointment many of Barack Obama's 2008 supporters feel is surely heightened by the fact that, in that great surge of small contributions, they had to pay for the privilege.
But somebody must get something valuable out of this $2bn election, besides the man who gets elected.
This is the point where the analysis of campaign financing may well go seriously astray, seeing the underlying purpose of the $2bn as buying some insidious and indirect influence, instead of looking at exactly who is pocketing the cash and hence promoting the game.
First off, there is the media. Presidential politics has become the difference between profit and loss for many television stations in battlefield states (most of them owned by major media companies). If you look at who has the largest financial interest in maintaining the hostility and partisan divide of modern politics, it is the media business. A curious conflict: the media stokes the fires of political acrimony while directly profiting from it.
And second, there are the people who buy the media. Standing between the campaign donor and the recipient, there are the people who actually spend all this money. In most instances, they get a cut of it: a percentage of the ad buy (usually between 8% and 15%) goes to them. This is the political operative business: the outside consultants attached to every campaign (at almost every level of politics), and, now as well, the Super Pacs making big media buys around the country. (In other words, the Super Pacs are now very profitable businesses.)
Karl Rove is not helping to run the American Crossroads Super Pac for free. In essence, the people who define the battleground states – the more money that's spent, the greater the contest – and who determine the tone of the campaign, and who set the budget requirements, are the people who most directly benefit from the campaign spend.
Everybody else gets much less than they expected.