Georgia’s Billion-Dollar Bonfire

The runoff races for two U.S. Senate seats in Georgia matter. But piling on more cash is not an effective way to win.

Folded $100 bills sit on top of the flag of the state of Georgia.
Getty / The Atlantic

Here are some of the ways that $443,210,038.26 could have been spent in the state of Georgia in 2020. Each time someone filed for unemployment—4.2 million claims have been processed since March, more than the past nine years combined—that person could have received a $100 bill. Roughly 100,000 of the state’s 1.4 million residents who are living through a global pandemic without health insurance could have purchased plans through the Affordable Care Act marketplace. Every freshman and sophomore at Spelman and Morehouse, two historically Black colleges in Atlanta known for producing political leaders, could have been awarded four-year full rides.

Instead, donors have plowed almost half a billion dollars into the campaigns of four candidates in Georgia’s two U.S. Senate runoff races, in which voters will cast the final ballots today. These millions reflect only part of what’s being spent on these elections—outside groups not legally affiliated with the four candidates have put in nearly half a billion more, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Little of this money will go to long-term investment in the state, although it could have financed decent salaries for a year for 7,600 community organizers in either party. Instead, the big winners of Georgia’s spending bonanza are out-of-state consultants and television conglomerates.

There’s something appalling about Americans spending this much on a pair of Senate seats during a pandemic, when so many people desperately need money. The U.S. Senate has played a central role in the response to COVID-19, but this year of public-health messaging and vaccine distribution has also highlighted the importance of officials like governors and county health commissioners, whose races and appointments don’t generate nearly so much attention or cash. The majority of the money flowing into Georgia comes from outside the state, spent by people who likely have little connection to any of its residents. Every dollar is a statement that the most important political action in America is happening in Washington, not on school boards navigating in-person reopening or among local public-health officials battling the coronavirus. Political donations, especially the $5 or $10 hits on ActBlue or WinRed, make “you feel good about yourself. It takes five seconds. And you feel like your identity is that you’re the good guys, you’re smart, and the other side is evil and stupid,” Eitan Hersh, a political scientist at Tufts University, told me. This is what politics has become in America: not a means to implement policy goals or improve people’s lives, but an expression of hatred for the other side.

It’s certainly true that the Georgia runoffs are among the most consequential federal elections of this cycle. If Democrats win both races, the party will effectively control both chambers of Congress and the White House, allowing Joe Biden to govern more decisively during his first two years as president. If Raphael Warnock is victorious, he would be the first-ever Black senator from Georgia; if his opponent, Kelly Loeffler, keeps the seat she has held by appointment since early last year, she would be the state’s first elected female senator. Unlike South Carolina or Maine or Kentucky, where donors spent hundreds of millions on races that ended up not even being close, Georgia may actually be competitive: The state flipped blue for Biden in November, and polls suggest that the final margins in both Senate races will be tight.

And yet it’s not clear that all the money pumped into these races will actually make a difference in how people vote. It’s harder than you might think to spend hundreds of millions of dollars. The four candidates—Warnock and Jon Ossoff on the Democratic side, Loeffler and David Perdue on the Republican—made their biggest payments to media-buying groups in Pennsylvania; Washington, D.C.; Ohio; and Virginia, respectively, according to Federal Election Commission data. These firms are basically the candidates’ personal shoppers, although their specialty is ad inventory, not shoes. Media buyers find the most effective way for candidates to reach potential voters—things like direct mail and television spots—and do the work of spending those millions. In a typical election cycle, digital advertising would account for a hefty portion of the spending, but Facebook and Google both shut down political ads immediately after the November 3 general election to fight the spread of disinformation. Those bans remained in place until mid-December, just three weeks before the Georgia runoffs, which meant that the four candidates had to get creative about where to put their cash. In large part, their answer was television: WSB, Atlanta’s ABC affiliate, has earned $70 million from the runoffs alone, according to data from the website Ad Age and the Campaign Media Analysis Group at Kantar, a market-research firm. As of late December, total spending on radio and television had exceeded $483 million, more than 90 percent of which went toward TV.

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.

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.