With the Supreme Court’s ruling in the infamous Citizens United case, much has been said about the influence of money in politics. Many politicians, especially Democrats, have decried the money pouring into this year’s campaign. While the increased prevalence of money in politics does raise real concerns, it is not as dire a threat to our democracy as some might believe.
Between the presidential campaigns and their affiliated groups (their respective PACs and national committees), more than $1 billion has already been raised for the 2012 presidential election, according to the New York Times. Of course, this doesn’t take into account unaffiliated outside groups, like Super PACs, which have raised and spent many more millions.
But how much does this money really matter, anyways? In his seminal paper on the effect of campaign finance on election outcomes, Steven D. Levitt found that, while there is a small positive correlation between amount fundraised and winning an election, it is a small one — much less significant than most campaigns appear to believe.
To approach this question from another angle, let’s take a look at how candidates typically spend their money.
Of course, some spending goes toward the standard costs associated with running any sort of campaign — rent for campaign offices, staff salaries, travelling, event costs and so on. However, those costs don’t even come close to the mammoth fundraising numbers posted by both candidates. So where’s the rest of the money going?
Ads. All types of ads, but especially the gold standard — TV ads. An analysis by OpenSecrets.org shows that President Obama has already spent nearly one quarter of a billion dollars on broadcast advertising alone.
So it appears that candidates aren’t using all this money to somehow magically “buy” an election. Instead, they’re pouring cash into advertising, especially in battleground states — for example, Wisconsin.
A variety of solutions have been proposed to address the glut of money in politics. A common proposal, voiced by President Obama in a Reddit ‘Ask Me Anything’ thread, is to amend the Constitution. In his own words: “Over the longer term, I think we need to seriously consider mobilizing a constitutional amendment process to overturn Citizens United (assuming the Supreme Court doesn’t revisit it).”
However, the real solution is much simpler than what would surely be a long and drawn out amendment process. All we need to do is stop letting political advertising affect us. If we all do our own research, which is easier than ever with a wealth of information at our fingertips, and make our own informed decisions, then no matter how many hundreds of millions of dollars candidates spend plastering the airways with their ads, it will be for naught.
More importantly, if someone likes Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson decides to pour millions upon millions into a presidential campaign, it won’t do him any good. And this is the key — we don’t need a constitutional amendment, new laws, or a Supreme Court ruling. All it takes is for everyone to spend a few minutes here or there reading and thinking before they cast their ballot. This may be too much to ask for, but we won’t know until we try.
We can complain about Citizens United and campaign finance laws all we want, but the reality of the situation is that the Supreme Court isn’t the problem and the law isn’t the problem. The problem is us.
Joe Timmerman ([email protected]) is a sophomore majoring in math and economics.