Why the problem with campaign finance isn’t ‘finance’ but ‘campaign’

Donald Trump defied the consultant class, but he's not alone in proving them largely ineffectual. (AP Photo / Paul Sancya)

Donald Trump defied the consultant class, but he’s not alone in proving them largely ineffectual. (AP Photo / Paul Sancya)

We hear a lot about the corrupting influence of money in politics, and in certain cases that may be true. To the extent this is a problem, the answer we usually hear is to regulate the amount of money people can give. It would be truly ironic if, instead, the change that was needed — and perhaps adopted — was self-restraint in soliciting money by candidates who came to realize all their spending was getting them nowhere.

If any candidate (or donor) wants to know whether the spending is really ineffective, I couldn’t recommend more highly this article by The Atlantic’s Molly Ball about the house of cards political consultants have built over the past few decades:

“These are boom times for political consultants — by one rough estimate, more than $6 billion will go to or through consulting firms during this year’s elections — and the scene at the conference was befitting of an industry awash in cash. Booths showcased the wares of campaign-literature printers, data-acquisition specialists, automated-phone-call vendors, online-fund-raising experts, and social-media-analytics firms. Whole companies exist just to manufacture the throwaway trinkets campaigns hand out, from stress balls with a candidate’s name on them to red-white-and-blue fingernail files.

“But all was not well at the Pollies (as the industry’s annual conference, held in Puerto Rico this past April, is called). A confab intended to be a sun-soaked junket was instead shadowed by the island’s debt crisis, the Zika virus, and a forecast of stormy weather throughout the week. It was almost too perfect a metaphor: Despite all the money pouring into political consulting, a palpable sense of unease looms over the profession. The consultants may be getting rich, but recent events suggest they don’t have any idea what they’re doing.”

This isn’t totally new; Republican activists in particular have been grumbling for years about how ineffectual and self-dealing the consultant class can be. It sure isn’t just about the rise of Donald Trump, who largely avoided the industry and survived hundreds of millions of dollars of its spending on behalf of his GOP opponents. Yes, there is an extended section about Jeb Bush’s super PAC, Right to Rise, and its head, Mike Murphy, which ought to make Bush donors’ blood boil. But Bush wasn’t the only one whose consultants looked somewhat silly this year. Consider, even in a winning effort, Hillary Clinton’s team:

“Hillary Clinton’s push for the Democratic nomination was nearly derailed by a candidate whose campaign manager was a comic-book-store owner with no experience in elections outside of Vermont. And while Clinton’s staff-heavy operation ultimately prevailed, her worst showings came in caucuses — the sort of contests where on-the-ground organizing is supposed to make the biggest difference. Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook, is a field-organizing specialist.”

The point here isn’t that consultants and the money they spend can’t be effective. It’s that no one really knows if, when or how they’re effective. Jeb lost because, as a campaign-finance attorney told Ball, his campaign was “trying to sell New Coke — a product people didn’t want to buy.” Hillary won because, while a sizable minority within the Democratic Party seems ready to lurch toward socialism, they weren’t a majority. (One of the great unanswered questions of this year’s election, destined to be held over for four to eight years, is whether they would have made for a plurality if the Democratic field this year had been anywhere near as large as the GOP’s.)

But the difference between winning and losing almost certainly wasn’t in the money or even the strategy. Ball’s article is replete with examples of well-funded failures not just in this presidential race but in other races across the nation in recent years. (A caveat: Most of what’s discussed here and in Ball’s piece is about national races, or at least federal-level races, such as Senate contests. State and local elections are somewhat different, though not completely so: There have been some high-dollar clunkers in those races, too.)

Old-school tactics such as TV advertising and direct mail lack strong evidence that they sway voters beyond the near term (i.e., the effect of a TV ad in September is likely to disappear long before a viewer casts a vote). But Ball also addresses the Big Data and high-tech campaigns, such as Barack Obama’s operations in 2008 and 2012:

“(D)o the supposedly cutting-edge tactics work? It’s hard to say. ‘There’s little evidence that they moved the needle in terms of Obama’s win,’ (Dartmouth political scientist Brendan) Nyhan told me. Partly this is because much of the data in question are proprietary and therefore unavailable for study. But when a pair of researchers attempted to calculate the effect of Obama’s data operation in Florida, the state he won by the narrowest margin in 2012, they estimated that it likely accounted for just 8,525 votes out of his 74,309-vote margin of victory. In 2014, Democrats spent some $60 million trying to replicate the Obama model in key Senate races across the country, only to lose in a wipeout.

“The one campaign tactic that’s consistently been found to be effective in turning out voters is field organizing — being present on the ground in a community and campaigning door-to-door. But the effects are small: For all the hype about Obama’s ground game in 2012, it likely netted him less than a point in the states where it was most active. Only a single state, Florida, was won or lost by that small a margin. ‘If you asked me, “Where’s the scientific evidence of what’s adding value to a campaign?,” I’d say field organizing,’ Nyhan said. ‘But the campaign consultants who are most famous are the strategists, especially the ones who focus on TV. And that’s where the evidence of the effectiveness of anything that people do in campaigns is the most limited.'”

I’ve barely scratched the surface here of Ball’s piece, which also excoriates the very lucrative campaign run on Ben Carson’s behalf. If you’re interested in this kind of inside baseball, as I am, you should read the whole thing.

But if you aren’t, here’s the takeaway: Candidates are best-positioned to know they are, broadly speaking, being ill-served by consultants. The time they spend on fund raising might be better spent on meeting with voters, and certainly would be more useful honing their policy positions (ask Scott Walker if he wishes he’d re-directed even a few hours of calling donors toward, say, understanding what he really wanted to say about illegal immigration).

And from a donor’s perspective, giving to a candidate is kind of like buying a lottery ticket: There might be something in it for you, but there’s an even better chance you’ll never see a dime of return. If you’re truly interested in making certain changes in this country, perhaps you should be thinking about ways to shape the culture that shapes voters’ points of view, or to develop and promote and defend specific ideas that politicians could adopt. Giving someone another dollar to spend on another ad that doesn’t move the needle — except in certain folks’ bank accounts — is way down the list of effectiveness.

Understanding all that is the kind of campaign-finance reform we really need.

Reader Comments 0

76 comments
SGTGrit
SGTGrit

Hillary, is a very sick person and in no condition to face the rigors of a presidency. Her mental and physical condition begs her and the DNC to remove her candidacy for the good of the country.

Starik
Starik

@SGTGrit Tim Kaine would probably be a better President than Hillary, or Trump, or Pence. I'm not worrying.

IReportYouWhine
IReportYouWhine

@SGTGrit For the good of the country is probably the last thought that would ever enter hillary's mind.

RafeHollister
RafeHollister

@Starik @SGTGrit  Since he took 100's of thousands of dollars in gifts while VA's Governor, he could help fill the Grifter void as well.

SGTGrit
SGTGrit

@IReportYouWhine @SGTGrit 

Probably not...Hillary and the Democrats seem to place more emphasis on societal priorities, such as electing the first Black president or the first woman president. The good of the country with the best qualified president becomes a distant consideration in the process. Next in their warped mindset is electing the first openly homosexsual president.

SGTGrit
SGTGrit

Hillary's, obese condition leaves her vulnerable to physical stress. How then can she effectively function as president with all of the stress she would encounter in that position.

YouLibs
YouLibs

@SGTGrit


Trump weighs in at just under 300 lbs.


You sure you want to talk about obesity?

IReportYouWhine
IReportYouWhine

The Democratic presidential nominee appeared to faint on her way into her van and had to be helped by her security, the source said. She was “clearly having some type of medical episode.”


http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2016/09/11/hillary-clinton-has-medical-episode-at-911-ceremony-source-says.html


Look, nobody wants this awful woman to die, it's way past time for the liberals to stage an intervention here. She won't make it to November. Might as well get Bernie fired back up or what ever else Plan B is.


Get the woman some help before it's too late!

Starik
Starik

@RafeHollister The British system needs more funding. That's the problem there. What percentage of people over there have no insurance at all?

Starik
Starik

@RafeHollister @Starik We have plenty of money for other things, like advanced fighters, jeeps, and ships...we could afford single payer.

FIGMO2
FIGMO2

Great insight, Kyle. 

While too many politicians are throwing money at a campaign to win votes, GOP voters throw Donald Trump into the process.

Talk about throwing a wrench into their political machine...

Gives whole new meaning to citizens united.


IReportYouWhine
IReportYouWhine

If anyone knows what a sexist is it would be hillary clinton. After all, she is married to a man who sees women of all ages as vaginal life support systems, who are to be had and abused.


Imagine for a moment how stupid a clinton supporter must really be.

MarkVV
MarkVV

@IReportYouWhine Imagine for a moment how stupid the writer of the above comment must really be to write it.

RafeHollister
RafeHollister

Well we all knew it was only a matter of time before common sense was outlawed by this regime.  Common sense is verboten when Title IX is involved, according to the DOE.  So, I guess common sense advocates fall into the basket of deplorables, along with those icky "coal people".
"The Sexual Harassment Policy inappropriately stated that ‘in assessing whether a particular act constitutes sexual harassment forbidden under this policy, the rules of common sense and reason shall prevail. The standard shall be the perspective of a reasonable person within the campus community.” This standard falls short of the preponderance of the evidence standard required to satisfy Title IX."


dailycaller.com/2016/09/09/obama-admin-relying-on-common-sense-violates-title-ix/#ixzz4JxEZ 

SGTGrit
SGTGrit

Well old Hildebeast, walks back her Trump, supporters deplorable comment but it doesn't change the fact that she is indeed deplorable.

Lil_Barry_Bailout
Lil_Barry_Bailout

Hillary: Americans are "in a basket of deplorables"

Obama: Americans are "lazy"

Heckuva week, America-hating Democrats!

RafeHollister
RafeHollister

@Lil_Barry_Bailout You forgot racist, Obama said when we are stressed we resort to RACISM.  They then criticize Trump for saying bad things on a program that may be seen on Russian TV, saying he shouldn't criticize American foreign policy anywhere but in America.  Meanwhile ole Barry is free to trash Americans all over the world.

IReportYouWhine
IReportYouWhine

Hedley_Lammar 3 hours ago

@SGTGrit Its just simple math


The number of older uneducated racist bigots who support Trump is dwindling. 



Coming from the biggest bigot on the blog. If you want to keep dividing the United States up into groups and pitting them against each other, then vote for the candidate that this racist hedley  lammar supports, the one whose husband referenced obama as someone who "just a few years ago, would have been fetching our coffee." A candidate who called Grand Kleagle Robert Byrd a mentor.


If you want a United States where the color of your skin isn't even noticed, vote for the man that has a Jewish son in law and an Eastern European wife. 


Are you clinton supporters stupid or what?

IReportYouWhine
IReportYouWhine

What "tipped the needle" for obama was vote fraud, white liberal guilt and Conservative indifference to the lame candidates put forth by the GOP. I doubt if consultants even entered into the equation. Think about that for a moment, our candidates are beholden to the highest bidders and they take that money and squander it on something entirely useless. 


Is it any wonder we swirl down the drain?

nick1234
nick1234

I think that may be a bit of an over simplification of how important field organizing is. You can't convince me that this isn't why Obama won in 08 and 12. Just the fact that he had Ohio won before election day, by early voting is evidence enough. 

SGTGrit
SGTGrit

Trump has certainly called attention to the establishment in both parties and how it hasn't improved the lot of everyday Americans in the form of job creation along with a growing economy. The last eight years have done nothing for Black or Hispanic America. Our military has been sadly neglected while our adversaries have become more emboldened to challenge us. Our status in the world has greatly diminished due to Obama's failed foreign policies that Hillary Reset Clinton was very much a part of. Yes, Trump is rising in the polls and doing so with a lot less money but will it be enough to counter the Democrats sheeple vote. Will the Democrats sheeple vote be less likely to vote in the great numbers that it did for Obama. I'm not ready to declare Trump the victor in November but I wouldn't declare that he will not be either. It seems that some of our left leaning Democrat friends are Ignoring Clinton's mounting vulnerabilities and declaring her a sure winner in November.

Hedley_Lammar
Hedley_Lammar

@SGTGrit @Hedley_Lammar  You're sure painting America with a broad racist brush


That isnt what racism is.


He wins one group and one group only. Uneducated whites


Which makes sense because that is pretty much the GOP these days


Pointing that out isnt racism


racism - prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one's own race is superior.

SGTGrit
SGTGrit

@Hedley_Lammar @SGTGrit 

What trailer parks, uneducated Whites and your broad brush indictment of older Americans which was an indirect insinuation toward older Southern born White males. Don't try to tell me that isn't racism. 

RoadScholar
RoadScholar

@SGTGrit "Nothing for Blacks and Hispanics"? Really?

Are YOU ready to pay for the military buildup that Trump is talking about? Serve in our next "excursion" or regime change? Steal Iraq's oil?

Hedley_Lammar
Hedley_Lammar

@RoadScholar @SGTGrit Steal Iraq's oil?


That one was especially hilarious. And shows just how dangerous Trump would be


When asked he says well you keep the oil. 


But how


Well you just keep it ( He has no idea )


Mumble something about a force left behind....


Yeah. Im sure Muslims would have been REALLY happy when we took their most precious natural resource. That wouldnt have caused any violence or anything.



Starik
Starik

@SGTGrit The decline our status in the world was when we made a complete disaster of Iraq. "Mission Accomplished." I wonder if the Smithsonian has that banner.  It has historic significance.

SGTGrit
SGTGrit

@Starik @SGTGrit 

First of all from the previous thread you indicated your belief that wars should be avoided if possible. Not many within the military or outside it would disagree with your position. However, the position of war avoidance at all costs presents greater danger that war may occur. My point was that given the real possibility of a mid-air collision between our aircraft and a Russian fighter flying dangerously close in a provocative act could trigger a war. I suggested fighter escorts with orders to engage and shoot down such provocations with the Russians being for- warned could prevent further incidents, which could lead to a war.


As for Iraq, who could now know what could have happened should the Saddam dictatorship have been allowed to continue with his regime in control of one of the worlds largest oil reserves. I can't answer that  question nor could anyone. We do know that he was a supporter of terrorism.

SGTGrit
SGTGrit

@RafeHollister @Hedley_Lammar @SGTGrit

I don't know anything about Hedley's ethnic makeup. If I, for an example should have posted as a senior White person a similar post favoring Donald Trump, and substituted ghetto for trailer parks and alluded to poor uneducated Black people, I would have been justifiably castigated as a racist.

Hedley_Lammar
Hedley_Lammar

@SGTGrit Its just simple math


The number of older uneducated racist bigots who support Trump is dwindling. 


There aren't enough trailer parks out there to get him elected


Its telling that Trump wins with ONE and ONE demographic only


Uneducated whites.


With every other group in America he loses badly.


Ill say this for Trump. He knows how to spot suckers.



IReportYouWhine
IReportYouWhine

@Hedley_Lammar @RoadScholar @SGTGrit The way that you steal Iraq's oil is by allowing companies that are based in the United States to bid for the rights to recover it. Who ever pays the Iraqi's the most money gets the rights to the oil. obama didn't allow any US companies to bid on it, so the Chinese got all of it. 


Are you clueless or what?

Hedley_Lammar
Hedley_Lammar

@RafeHollister @Hedley_Lammar @SGTGrit Yes we brought you to this sad place


The greatest country with the best living conditions in history


Respected again around the world after the debacle and lie that was the Iraq War.


Oh the horror.

Starik
Starik

@SGTGrit @Starik Some wars are necessary. If you'll recall, a Chinese fighter collided with an American plane a few years ago - the Chinese pilot was killed  and the US plane landed in China.  After a brief detention the crew was released. The plane was repaired by our side, in China, and flew out later.  Grown-up behavior, a civilized response to an obvious accident caused by a reckless Chinese pilot playing the interception game. 


The Venezuelan regime has more oil than Iraq and we put up with that - the fact is that Saddam needed to sell his oil to support his regime. I doubt he caused more trouble outside his borders than Saudi Arabia did and does.

SGTGrit
SGTGrit

@Starik @SGTGrit 

What might have happened if the collision resulted in the American crew being killed?


I don't know about Venezuela having more oil reserves than Iraq. I thought the latter had the third largest in the world. You may doubt but you can't say with certainty he caused more trouble much less if he could have caused more. We don't know.

RafeHollister
RafeHollister

@Hedley_Lammar @SGTGrit No, but it is bigotry for someone to look down on or despise those who think and act different than you.   Elitist like you have been in charge of the country far too long and have brought us to this sad place, where America is disrespected throughout the world and the common American's economic potential continues to decline.

Starik
Starik

@SGTGrit @Starik During the cold war a number of our aircraft were shot down intentionally by the Russians. During Vietnam a number of Russians were killed in action in North Vietnam; same in Korea, due to bombing. We do not want war, nor do the Russians, or the Chinese, if any of the majors wanted war we would have had it already

SGTGrit
SGTGrit

@Starik @SGTGrit 

I think that was being said about Germany and Japan before we were forced into WWII.

SGTGrit
SGTGrit

@Hedley_Lammar @SGTGrit 

You're sure painting America with a broad racist brush with that rant because unless you're blinded by ideological ignorance you've somehow been unaware of the polls. The tightening of this race just doesn't support your fuzzy math.

Starik
Starik

@Hedley_Lammar @SGTGrit I'm pretty sure that the IQ bell curve for Asians and Jews are superior to that of white folks. It makes no sense that everybody, and all groups of people, are equal...but they should be treated as if they were equal, short of affirmative action.