Our system wouldn’t be better off if we spent less.
It is a near daily complaint during election season: “There’s too much money in politics.”
Every election cycle there is more and more money spent on campaigns, with more and more groups entering the fray. In particular, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision is often cited as the beginning of a new free-spending era in political campaigning. Many think our political system would be measurably better if there was less money in politics.
Surprisingly, the amount spent on politics is still quite small. During the 2010 cycle, the total spending for all races was $4.6 billion, which was 8 percent higher than the 2008 cycle. Sure, $4.6 billion spent on politics sounds gigantic—until you realize there are about 314 million people in the United States. Even if you just look at the roughly 200 million people who are eligible to vote, this would amount to the average eligible voter spending $22.50 per every two-year election cycle.
That’s really not so much money. Just compare that to the size of some other industries in America. Look at the amount spent on coffee consumption, for example. A recent study says that the average American worker spends over $1,000 per year on coffee. Per week, the average amount spent is $21.
The average American spends three times as much on bottled water, four times as much on dog food, four times as much on gym memberships, fifteen times as much on lottery tickets, and twice as much on plastic surgery.
Yes, political spending has increased markedly in recent years, but the scale of the industry is still quite small. Even though the industry is less lucrative than most realize, money is still key. If it wasn’t, then shrewd political observers wouldn’t monitor fundraising numbers like hawks and politicians wouldn’t build up war chests to scare off challengers.
Why is money so important to the political process that there will be non-stop political ads this fall?
Name recognition is the main reason. Almost everyone in America knows that Barack Obama is the current president, but beyond the presidency, the amount of people who couldn’t even name their U.S. senators or the governor of their state is alarmingly high. Even well-educated people have trouble identifying their state representatives, let alone their city council, county council, or township elected officials.
There is a small core of people who are either in the political world or political junkies, who have the news on all day. These people really do not need political advertising to tell them how to vote. They will seek out ways on their own to learn about candidates and tend to be strong partisans, who won’t be convinced by opposition advertising.
But the large majority of Americans are not like this. Most people “outsource” their political engagement to others. This is not necessarily a matter of intelligence or civic-mindedness. A small business owner, who works 60-hour weeks, can be very involved in their community but has no time to investigate candidates on their own. So he or she may rely on people they trust, like the local Chamber of Commerce, to tell them which candidates are in their best interest.
It’s not realistic in a bustling society like the United States for every voter to be an expert on every candidate that will be on the ballot. But this means that the main way politicians can influence voters is through political advertisements. For a democratic republic to survive, voters have to be engaged in the political process.
The only way the barrage of political ads will go away is for the entire electorate to be so well-educated that political advertising would be worthless. And as long as most want to live a normal lifestyle, enduring political advertisements will be one of the costs of living in a free society.
Chris Palko works as an assistant media analyst at Smart Media Group, a Republican political media buying agency in Alexandria, Va. He is a graduate of American University and George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.
A version of this post was also published on Campaign and Election’s blog, Campaign Insider.