The Puzzling Persistence of Political Inflation

By Mike Dorf

In my latest Verdict column, I use President Obama's recently expressed willingness to have SuperPACs support his re-election as an occasion to discuss the campaign finance mess and whether anything can be done about it.  I note that among people who think about the issue, public financing is the gold standard but that American politics will generally preclude the sort of generous public financing that would neutralize SuperPAC spending.  I then suggest that the federal government might consider attaching conditions to licenses for wireless carriage requiring free airtime for candidates for office.  Intrigued?  Go read the column.

Now onto a related question: Why is running for office so expensive?  For years, we have been hearing about how the growth of the Internet means that it is now easier than ever to get a message out into the world.  It's also supposed to be cheaper.  That's why the shift from print to Internet has been so disastrous for newspapers: Print advertising is much more expensive per eyeball than is internet advertising, so moving readers from print to online cuts into ad revenues.  And yet, despite these developments, there is more money than ever going into political campaigns.  What gives?

Here are a few related thoughts:

1) We may be in a world of media transition but it's a long transition.  Mitt Romney's "death star" SuperPAC spends a lot of dough buying airtime.  Some of this may be demographics.  Old media are still a good way to reach old(er) people, who tend to vote, especially in Republican primaries.

2) There's also an attention issue.  Internet ads tend to require more active participation by viewers.  Political junkies might click on a SuperPAC ad about how Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich is not really a conservative, but many people, including many primary voters, won't.  Old media get political advertisements to their audience, even if it's a captive audience.  To be sure, the audience could fast forward through the ads if watching on a DVR, but that brings us back to point 1).  Much of the target audience probably just sits passively and watches.

3) Some big chunk of the money goes for making rather than placing ads.  Sure, if you're Mike Gravel or Herman Cain, you can make a low-budget offbeat ad, release it on YouTube, and watch it go viral.  However, having hundreds of thousands of people emailing each other links to your ad with the Subject line "WTF?" is not exactly a winning strategy, as you can verify by asking President Gravel or President Cain how it worked out.

4) In addition to spending a chunk of change to produce and place ads, modern campaigns cost a lot of money for other things: flying the candidate, his or her entourage, and surrogates around, paying for their hotel rooms, paying non-volunteer staff for putting up signs, get-out-the-vote operations, etc.  Note that the high cost of these sorts of expenses is probably good for democracy.  Why?  Because most of these are items that the candidate's own campaign has to control and therefore cannot be funded by uncoordinated expenditures from SuperPACs.  That, in turn, means that the hard money caps can actually do some work.

So, my bottom line: At some point in the future, if advertising costs really do come down (or if Congress passes the statute I propose in my Verdict column), existing campaign finance legislation could work.  Of course, by then, President Santorum's Supreme Court appointees may have overruled the portion of Buckley v. Valeo that permits regulation of campaign donations, so it might be too late!