US 2012: Money isn’t everything

More money has been “invested” in American politics than ever before, but will it prove decisive?

Although Romney will outspend Obama in campaign finances, Obama is still winning the 'ground war' [REUTERS]
Although Romney will outspend Obama in campaign finances, Obama is still winning the 'ground war' [REUTERS]

After Bill Clinton’s successful presidential campaign in 1992, a popular documentary showed the world how he did it.

It was called The War Room, the name insiders used to describe the inner sanctum where tactical decisions were made.

That term was a spin on Carl von Clausewitz’s famous comment that “war is a continuation of politics by other means”; for the Clintonians of that era and all who fight major campaigns today, politics has become a form of disciplined warfare.

Warriors need money with which to fight their battles, but they need more than that. Like contemporary politicians, they need strategists, consultants, marketers, researchers, media advisors, and don’t forget the vote specialists.

Money is a necessary but not necessarily a sufficient condition for victory, even as its role in politics seems to dwarf everything else.

That’s partly because of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that places corporate speech on par with people’s speech and on a scale we haven’t see before. Restrictions on giving have been revised upwards.

US 2012:
The issues that matter – Chicago: Campaign funding

The non-partisan Center For Responsive Politics tracks this business on the OpenSecrets.org website by monitoring monthly reports filed by candidates with the Federal Electoral Commission. Not only are the campaigns raising money with professional fundraisers while so-called “bundlers” systematically solicit funds from industries and professional groups that would benefit if their candidate wins, but many donors are channelling money through independent political action committees, and so-called “SuperPACs” do not have to publicly identity who they are.

Originally the Democrats challenged this practice, but soon joined in.

The Romney campaign has 15 Associated outside SuperPACs with buzz world names like “Citizens for a Working America” and “Restore Our Future”.

As of August 31, 2012, they reported:

Total Raised: $279,343,000?
Total Spent: $228,921,63
Cash on Hand: $50,434,404?
Debts: $15,000,000

The Obama Campaign only had three “Outside Groups” but, contrary to the perception of many Democrats, Obama, a master fundraisier has actually raised and spent more in this period:

Total Raised: $432,197,459?
Total Spent: $345,723,446?
Cash on Hand: $88,777,412?
Debts: $2,922,211

Obama reported a personal net worth of $1,566,014 to $7,764,999.

Romney reported more, much more: $80,852,165 to $254,079,014

Soon these contributions turned into a cash flood. Political fundraising has become a growth industry.

OpenSecrets summed it up this way:

“With less than a month to go until the election, outside spending continues to be the campaign money story of 2012.

Pretty much any way you slice it, it’s way up in the 2012 cycle. The total spent by non-party outside groups has far eclipsed spending at comparable points in previous cycles, and if this cycle is like those earlier ones, the majority of total 2012 non-party outside spending is likely to come in these last few weeks before Election Day.”

Yet even as the money that will mostly go to TV commercials (and media companies) in what analysts compare to a shock and awe “Air War”, especially in key Senatorial races at the State level, there is also a less visible ground war underway.

It took a financial columnist to underscore the limits of finance in modern campaigns. The New Yorker‘s James Surowiecki explains:

“Even in today’s money-soaked politics, all campaigns have limited resources of money, time, and manpower. Campaigns fail if they waste resources courting voters who are unpersuadable or already persuaded. Their most urgent task is to find and persuade the few voters who are genuinely undecided and the larger number who are favourably disposed but need a push to actually vote.”

In 2008, the Obama campaign used an algorithm with hundreds of shifting variables to target potential voters for customised outreach. Some of this involves micro-targeting techniques that are common in professional and scientific consumer marketing.

Concludes, Surowiecki, “The Obama campaign has put far more into the ground game, and it has the advantage of the experience and the data it gathered last time around. Romney will likely spend more and buy more ads, but that may not matter if Obama ends up with more knocks on the door.”

In 2012, this “ground game” now relies on individual and secret “data mining” and political voter surveillance systems that give the campaigns unprecedented “access”, according to the New York Times, to the personal lives of the voters they are appealing to.

“And they are using that data to influence voting habits – in effect to train voters to go to the polls through subtle cues, rewards and threats in a manner akin to the marketing efforts of credit card companies,” the paper reports in a page one expose.

This represents an expanded infiltration of marketing into democracy – commercialisation of politics in a new and insidious way. Just as Citizens United corporatises political funding, a form of personal spying now corporatises political outreach. Campaigns that were once fought in public, now rely on extensive use of privately collected data.

What this suggests is that the polls that the “horse-race” oriented electoral media, with all its fancy graphics and “electotainment” style, are an inadequate guide to likely outcomes.

Media analysts rarely assess which candidate has a better grass roots machine to insure high turnouts. That takes reporting, not just opinionising.

Nor do they highlight techniques to suppress the vote and various dirty tricks that have been used successfully in Florida in 2000, and then in 2004 in Ohio to keep Democrats on long lines but away from the ballot box.

Journalist Greg Palast who exposed voter purges in Florida twelve years ago told me that he believes, after a state by state investigation, that this situation is no better today. He has spelled out how elections are stolen in a new book, Billionaires and Ballot Bandits.

Yet his reports are seen on BBC, not on Fox or CNN. His reporting is often page one – in Britain!

These techniques, as well as sophisticated sabotage of electronic voting machines, may be more effective in the end than all the soundbites by voters who say they intend to back Obama, for example, but then can’t cast their votes or be confident those votes will be counted.

Election manipulation is now a high art; election protection is not.

Money matters – but it is not all that matters.

News Dissector Danny Schechter blogs at newsdissector.net. His most recent books are Blogothon and Occupy: Dissecting Occupy Wall Street. He hosts a radio show on ProgressiveRadioNetwork (PRN.fm). Comments to dissector@mediachannel.org.

Follow him on Twitter: @dissectorevents

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