The Buzz

April 7, 2014

Voters, not big-money donors, still have the final say in politics

Voters have a way to reduce the influence of money in politics: ignore what the money buys. The rich guys would get the message soon enough. And at that point — unable to influence election outcomes — their ability to buy access would also disappear.

The Buzz

The facts, faces and hum of local politics with Steve Kraske and Dave Helling

Last week’s Supreme Court decision lifting the cap on aggregate political giving has produced a wave of anguish from self-described good-government groups. “Again, U.S. Supreme Court Decides Against Democracy,” headlined the news release from Common Cause

, which wants public financing of campaigns.

The case against money in politics generally involves two claims: that rich guys’ cash pays for misleading campaigns and buys improper access to elected officials.

There seems little doubt that campaign donations and access are linked. It’s quite likely, for example, that Rex Sinquefield’s calls to the Missouri legislature are returned more quickly than, say, yours are.

On the first concern, though, the evidence is more mixed and more interesting.

More money in politics means more campaign spending, much of it on costly TV advertising. In 2012, candidates and campaigns spent more than $3 billion on TV commercials.

Yet the evidence suggests political TV ads are less effective than candidates and their consultants think. That’s partly because younger voters are less likely to watch commercial TV, relying instead on social media for political cues.

But it’s also because most voters deeply distrust the political ads they do see. Decades of scrutiny of the claims in political commercials has convinced many voters to disregard them.

What’s a candidate to do? Increasingly, they’re turning to an old-school medium: the last-minute mailer.

We saw it again last week in

the Hickman Mills school district

. Last-minute mail pieces are the perfect device for scurrilous political advertising: They arrive too late for independent scrutiny, so they can be packed with erroneous claims and misleading graphics. They also can be carefully targeted to keep costs down.

This year, mailers — and their equivalents, robocalls and Internet-based messages — may be as important as expensive political TV ads.

Unless … voters

ignore

the mailers and tweets, just like they do commercials.

What if everyone simply discarded all the mail pieces? Deleted nasty emails? Hung up the phone and muted political ads on TV?

The rich guys would get the message soon enough. And at that point — unable to influence election outcomes — their ability to buy access would also disappear.

The biggest threat to democracy may be unlimited campaign donations, but the best defense is an energetic, informed electorate making up its own mind.

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