Politics & Policy

Money Isn’t Everything on the Campaign Trail

Roy Moore and wife Kayla at a campaign stop in Montgomery, Ala., September 21, 2017. (Reuters photo: Tami Chappell)
The two parties think that, with enough money, they can fool people into believing them.

Roy Moore’s primary victory in Alabama’s special election has unnerved Republicans and intrigued Democrats. The former worry that Moore will hurt the reputation of their party, while the latter see an opportunity to defeat an unfit candidate and pick up an unexpected Senate seat in 2018. To that end, Cameron Joseph reports for Talking Points Memo that “national Democrats are seriously weighing whether to go big” in the race.

What does “going big” mean to them? Joseph’s report provides an answer. Encouraged by the quality of their candidate — Doug Jones, best known for successfully prosecuting four Ku Klux Klan–affiliated terrorists — some Democrats are encouraging the powers that be to spend money:

The big questions the DSCC and other national Democratic groups are looking to answer before investing significant resources are whether enough Republicans might cross over to back Jones in a state President Trump won by a 28-point margin last fall and where racially polarized voting makes it extra tough for a Democrat to get much higher than 40 percent in statewide races.

That’s certainly a challenge, although Philip H. DeVoe reports that Jones’s current poll numbers are unexpectedly strong. But it’s unclear that “investing significant resources,” meaning giving Jones money and logistical support, will be enough to put him over the top. It wasn’t for Luther Strange, the incumbent senator whom Moore defeated this week. Strange enjoyed a nearly eight-to-one advantage in terms of independent political expenditures, with the Mitch McConnell–allied Senate Leadership Fund pouring more than $7.5 million into the race.

Moore’s win should give pause to those who think elections can be bought outright. It’s become received wisdom in the post–Citizens United world that the candidate who has the deepest pockets — or whose allies do — is the favorite. Her campaign, working in tandem with ostensibly independent but de facto allied super PACs, can dominate the airwaves and fill up mailboxes. Voters, in turn, pick her, a choice they might not have made otherwise. Bernie Sanders’s website provides a representative sample of that view, saying that “the wealthiest people in this country” have “the opportunity to purchase the U.S. Government.”

Yet there’s mounting evidence that campaigns don’t work that way. A forthcoming study in the American Political Science Review by Joshua L. Kalla and David E. Broockman estimates “that the direct persuasive effects of [campaigns’] voter contact and advertising in general elections are essentially zero.” Kalla and Broockman combine a meta-analysis of existing studies with nine of their own studies to reach their conclusion. Their study notes that campaigning can still have an effect in primary elections, where partisan frames are absent. But, in their words, it “casts doubt on the view that political elites can easily manipulate citizens’ judgments.”

The most obvious explanation of Kalla and Broockman’s results is our suffocating atmosphere of partisanship. These days, opposition to the other party not only defines political discourse but is becoming a constitutive element of people’s identities. And campaigns can’t swing people who refuse to be swung.

That’s hardly news, and Joseph’s report indicates that Democratic operatives are well aware that convincing Alabamans to swing to their side might be impossible. But it also suggests that their assumptions about campaigns need refreshing. Pouring money into the Alabama Senate race so Jones can advertise more is probably worthless: If anything, Jones ought to be encouraged to move to the ideological center — it could demonstrate that he cares more about the interests of his would-be constituents than his ideological purity.

Yet early signs are that rather than moderate on cultural issues to reflect the views of Alabamans, Jones will adopt most standard Democratic positions. Meanwhile, any Republican hopes that Moore would render himself less objectionable seem like wishful thinking.

Why are our two major parties so resistant to reform, so wedded to their unpopular ideologies? Maybe it’s because they think that, with enough money, they can fool people into liking them. Observers have offered several plausible reasons why our politics has devolved into two factions obsessively talking past each other, but a fundamental misunderstanding of how to win voters’ trust seems as good a culprit as any.

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