Money can’t guarantee political victory, but there are few politicians who would choose lack of money as a route to success in the new era of big-money politics.
In Vermont and the nation we have seen the effects of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling and the crumbling of regulations limiting the flow of money into political campaigns. It has been estimated that campaign spending in total this year reached $6 billion. Most of it went to pay for television ads, most of them negative.
Vermonters were not subjected to the flood of ads from the presidential race that inundated swing states such as Ohio. But the appearance in Vermont of the super PAC known as Vermonters First showed both the power and the limits of money to shape events.
In the presidential race, it appears that Democrats, spooked by the prospect of billionaires’ money going to Republican super PACs, raised a sufficiency of money themselves. President Obama’s fundraising machinery was able to generate enough money to finance the carpet bombing of Mitt Romney’s reputation during the summer months.
Obama did not make up Romney’s political profile: a mega-millionaire with Cayman Islands and Swiss bank accounts who refused to release more than two years of his tax returns. But Obama’s ad campaign was able to drive that profile home and establish in voters’ minds the idea that Romney was a ruthless capitalist.
It’s impossible to say that the Bain Capital attacks won Obama the presidency, but they kept him in the game, allowing him to compete. One of the lessons of the election is that both sides are locked in a system where each requires hundreds of millions of dollars, much of it coming from special interests. Unfortunately, the dependence on big money makes both sides sensitive to the demands of billionaires, who, it must be noted, do not necessarily have the good of the nation at heart.
At the same time the limits of money were also on display. The failure of Linda McMahon to win a Senate seat in Connecticut after spending $100 million of her own money over two elections puts her in the company of Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman, the two wealthy businesswomen who lost elections in California two years ago. It turns out the voters can think for themselves.
The carnival of billionaires was in full flower during the Republican primary when several high-profile tycoons chose their own candidates and let it be known they would spend millions to promote them. It is demeaning to a politician to have to bow and scrape before someone like Sheldon Adelson, the gambling tycoon who was a champion of Newt Gingrich and later of Romney.
The story in Vermont was different. Attorney General William Sorrell benefited from the infusion of super PAC money in the primary, helping him fend off a challenge from TJ Donovan.
In the general election, Lenore Broughton, a wealthy Burlington resident, put hundreds of thousands of dollars into the campaign on behalf of conservative candidates, including Wendy Wilton and Vincent Illuzzi, who lost their races for treasurer and auditor, respectively. It may be that Broughton’s decision to help the Republican cause was a reflection of the weakness of the party in Vermont.
Also, the small scale of politics in Vermont forces big money to compete with grass-roots realities. Six years ago a wealthy businessman, Richard Tarrant, thought he would use his private fortune to oust Sen. Bernard Sanders. Vermonters would have none of it.
Voters pummeled by TV ads may be disgusted at one level, but the high turnout in this year’s elections suggests that saturation advertising may have the effect of motivating voters. The enthusiasm gap that supposedly threatened Obama did not materialize; his supporters may have seen so many anti-Obama ads that they were determined to vote.
Voters have the last word, which is gratifying. The toxic effect of the present system is felt mostly by the politicians who have to spend inordinate time and energy chasing down money and catering to potential contributors. Until the system is changed, the voters’ best weapon is awareness. It helps to know who is buying whom.
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