Read: What just happened in Georgia?
Campaigns also invest huge amounts in fundraising, with a handsome cut for the consulting firms they hire. Ossoff, a 33-year-old who has never held political office, has raised roughly $139 million in his attempt to unseat Perdue, just three years after he amassed more than $31 million in a losing bid for a congressional seat in the northern Atlanta suburbs. (The next year, Lucy McBath, a Democrat, won the seat after raising less than a tenth of that amount.) During his Senate race, Ossoff has spent at least $2.2 million with the D.C. firm Mothership Strategies, which helped popularize the now ubiquitous hair-on-fire style of Democratic fundraising emails. (“WE TOLD YOU: Rev. Raphael Warnock can win the Georgia Senate race and save the Supreme Court,” reads one October email from the Congressional Black Caucus PAC, a major Mothership client. “But NO ONE IS DONATING!!!” It should be clear by now, but: This was a lie.) Especially early on, plentiful contributions create the appearance of momentum. “Competitive spending and outside fundraising is a compelling narrative for media,” Erika Franklin Fowler, a professor of government at Wesleyan University, told me. Raising money is also a way for candidates to project moral superiority. Democrats in particular love to talk about the “small dollar” donations fueling their campaigns. But rich people and corporations still account for huge portions of the money spent, and D.C.-area consulting firms like Mothership still benefit most in terms of profit.
This seems to be the hazy justification for how campaign totals have gotten so large: The appearance of being able to raise lots of money is just as important as the money itself. As I spoke with people in D.C.’s polling and fundraising world about how we got here, Cold War metaphors kept coming up. Several Democrats insisted that they hate how much money is spent on politics, but as long as the other side is taking advantage of lax campaign-finance laws, they refuse to “unilaterally disarm.” Republicans feel similarly. “You’ve got enough weapons to blow up the Earth 50 times over, but you can’t not build them,” Dan Judy, a Georgia native and vice president at North Star Opinion Research, which usually works with Republicans, told me. “You’ve got to keep the pace.”
The next Senate will face urgent choices, such as whether to approve additional pandemic relief for American families, and potentially long-lasting ones, such as who might take the place of 82-year-old Stephen Breyer or other Supreme Court justices. But Loeffler and Perdue would not guarantee Republicans the ability to stymie Biden, nor would Warnock and Ossoff empower Democrats to ram through whatever they want.
Read: White suburbanites won’t be enough in Georgia
And in any case, more television ads are unlikely to change Georgia voters’ minds. Campaign outreach and advertising likely have, on average, zero effect on how voters vote, according to a 2017 meta-analysis of 49 field experiments by two political scientists at Stanford and UC Berkeley. Political advertising is particularly useless at the end of election cycles and in highly polarized environments like Georgia, which has already been blanketed with ads for months. The only people who really seem to benefit from all the money sloshing around the Peach State are those who stand to profit from it. “I’ll get right to the point,” reads a post-Christmas email from Christy Smith, who failed to win a California congressional seat in 2020. “I’m asking you to chip in $5—or whatever you can—to split between Raphael Warnock’s Senate campaign and our fund to flip CA-25 blue.” Georgia voters may not know it, but thousands of miles away in California, a new arms race has begun.