As we begin to sort out the "what worked and what didn't" of the election cycle, we're re-learning one of the more obvious ones: money, alone, cannot by electoral success. While lefties fretted about Citizens United and the huge sums of money put into the election by right wing millionaires and billionaires... the reality turns out to be the dud some of us predicted. With billions spent, a lot of the money was apparently mostly wasted, and changed very little.
This is especially true of Karl Rove's American Crossroads,which threw millions at a variety of races (including ads in Presidential "swing" states) and won almost none of them (including the swing states for Romney). Rove's money machine mostly solidified one thing: Rove's hold over the right wing as a power player. Sheldon Adelson's vast wealth? Wasted. Linda McMahon's nearly $100 million spent to lose two consecutive Senate races in Connecticut? Exceedingly wasted.The zillionaires put a brave face on the enormous waste, and considering the enterprises these people profit from (Adelson's shady gambling empire in Macau, McMahon's fortune from the heavily staged WWE) , there's more where that came from... but there's no getting around the waste of a King's ransom spent on losing this year's elections.
Underlying this fear of the "big money donor" is, as I've siggested, a broader misconception and fear of mass market advertising. We are so bombarded, as Americans, with advertising messages that it's easy to assume that mass advertising really does make us mindless drones easily pushed into doing anything ads tell us to do. In reality, advertising gets us to do very little we wouldn't do anyway - eat, shop, wear clothes, and on and on. We accept advertising as a cultural given, we've explained it away as the price of captalism and free markets... but believing too much in the power of advertising is believing, ultimately, that we're really very dumb. And we're not - we're no geniuses collectively, but most of us are also not idiots (despite what I yell in my car). Advertising does not define us, or our choices, and we should question assumptions about mass media influence more than we already do.
So this was the year that political ads were supposed to be ugly, when the blanketing of ads in some markets (I can't imagine life as a TV viewer in Columbus or Cinncinnati) was so complete it was impossible to miss them... and the net/net was... about the same as last time. Ads didn't convince a lot of people that Obama was a terrible person who wanted to socialize medicine and ship auto jobs to China, nor did ads entirely convince people that Mitt Romney helped kill a woman with cancer. We watched, we saw, we went on with our everyday lives. And we voted for candidates who made sense to us for a variety of reasons, things that often had nothing to do with the messages in ads.
There's a lesson here should anyone choose to learn it - I've long thought that we won't solve the excesses of money in politics until the people who are foolish enough to waste their money start wising up and simply refuse to give it. Adelson's money doesn't make him a political genius - it makes him a gullible check writer who apparently falls for a good story and rosy promises of easy success. Linda McMahon's money doesn't make her a viable candidate; it makes her a vanity candidate convinced that looking the part is the same as being it.
Even the argiument that the Obama team are organizing and marketing geniuses for winning is suspect, and ought to be given only so much credence - as good as they did, as much as they executed well to the long view, the idea that deep database research made them extremely formidable is kind of wishful. It's simply demographic research at a micro level, and ultimately, what you know isn't necessarily all the much more than an observant person can figure out anyway. Single women weren't thrilled about the right's antiwoman, anti birth control tactics. Latin Americans want better immigration policies. People vote on the issues that affect them most, and most personally. People will accept political contacts when those contacts treat them more as individuals and less as a number on a sheet. Retail politics isn't complicated... it's just that door knocking and building rapport at the local level is hard and takes energy and conviction. The Obama team's real secret, still, is the passion of its volunteers and supporters. And that can't really be bought.
I don't want campaign finance reform because it will make our elections magically more fair; I want campaign finance reform because the sleazy business of political contributions is embarrassing and wrong. Setting some campaign finance limits would also help save billionaires with a checkbook and no sense from themselves, and I'm all about Consumer Protection. :) But mostly, I think we'd be better able to do some campaign finance reform if we faced the obvious - all that money doesn't do very much to win elections, or even change minds. It's mostly wasted, and that's just silly. And then maybe we could look harder at the money that's the real problem: the fairly obvious bribery of the lobbying industry. That's the real problem, harder to solve, and far more dirty.