I was talking to a friend yesterday who was complaining about all the money being spent on the presidential election. The $1 billion that will probably be spent could be better spent on any number of pressing social needs, he told me.
I don't know what the campaign will end up costing, but $1 billion sounds reasonable. According to the Campaign Finance Institute, combined receipts of the various campaigns came to $333 million in 2000 and $674 million in 2004. If one assumes that the numbers double every four years, then it wouldn't be surprising if all the candidates ended up spending $1.3 billion by the end of next year.
Is this a lot of money? Considering what is at stake, I don't think so. Consider the fact that Procter & Gamble has an annual advertising budget of $4.6 billion. General Motors spends $4.35 billion. There are probably dozens of companies that spend more than $1 billion per year selling us toothpaste, automobiles and all manner of other things.
When we think about the impact of a president on our lives, the amount of money spent telling people who that person his, what he or she stands for and so on seems pretty trivial. Perhaps if Gore and Kerry had spent a little more it would have saved us from some of the disasters foisted upon the American people, not to mention the Iraqis, by George W. Bush. And we will be paying for these disasters long after he is gone.
So I say, let's spend more, not less, on our presidential campaigns. Let's spend as much as necessary to make sure that we really understand who these guys are and what they are going to do to us if elected. I think it's money well spent--at least as well spent as one fourth of what Procter & Gamble spends every year to tell us why we should all brush our teeth with Crest.
This brings me to another peeve. People are too credulous about money being the "mother's milk" of politics. Journalists love to total up how much each candidate has raised or spent as if this is the be-all and end-all of political reporting. They seldom report how ineffective most of that spending is or how often the guy who spent less went on to win.
Here's a great website for those who think that money is all that matters in winning elections. It lists all of the self-financed congressional candidates in 2004 who spent more than $1 million of their own money on their campaigns. Only one was elected, even though some of these candidates spent extraordinary amounts of money. Blair Hull spent almost $30 million of his own money seeking the Democratic Senate nomination in Illinois and couldn't even win the primary. For more on this phenomenon, check out Self-Financed Candidates in Congressional Elections by Jennifer Stern.
Of course, money is important in politics. A certain minimum is necessary to be able to compete. But it's my observation that once over this threshold, most of the money is wasted. And sometimes it becomes counterproductive because candidates just end up buying more and more annoying television ads that mainly serve as reminders of what a jerk the candidate is. I know in my own case this has turned me against candidates I had planned on voting for.
The real problem of money in politics is that contribution limits make it incredibly time-consuming and complicated to raise the money necessary to be competitive. In the Internet age, full and immediate disclosure is sufficient protection against abuse. With such a system in place, there is simply no reason for any limits on campaign contributions by individuals.