Sunday, November 11, 2012

George Will's Self-Serving Arguments on Campaign Spending

Note to George Will: If you can't make an honest case for your position on campaign spending, specifically allowing unlimited corporate money into political campaigns, perhaps you should admit that your argument is nowhere near as compelling as you pretend.
The 2010 elections, the first after the Supreme Court’s excellent Citizens United> decision liberalized the rules about funding political advocacy, were especially competitive. Social science confirms what common sense suggests: More spending on political advocacy means more voter information and interest. The approximately $2 billion spent in support of this year’s presidential candidates — only about two-thirds as much as Procter & Gamble spent on U.S. advertising last year — surely contributed to the high turnout in targeted states.
Let's start with the statement, "Social science confirms..." - if in fact social science supports Will's suppositions, where can I find it? Why isn't Will citing studies, or linking to materials that support his contention that his positions are now supported by "social science"?

The first thing "social science" supposedly confirms is "spending on political advocacy means more voter information and interest". Where can I find evidence that increased spending on political advocacy resulted in more information being available to voters? Where can I find evidence that the spending made voters more interested in the election? Given that a great deal of third party spending goes to negative advertising and misinformation, to the extent that we assume that voters are engaged by the advertising where is the evidence that it improves how voters engage with the facts and issues? If "more voter information" is provided, but it's inferior in quality or false, could it not result in a less informed electorate, less capable of making an informed decision?

When we talk about the amount spent on the election campaign, how does $2 billion become a trivial amount? Why does Will believe P&G's advertising budget to be a relevant number for comparison to election ad spending?

Will says that the ads "surely contributed to the high turnout in targeted states" - again, based on what "social science"? Why should we assume ads, not GOTV efforts, were what brought otherwise ambivalent voters to the polls? In recent years the top six states for voter turnout have not been swing states - unless you count Wisconsin as a swing state. This year?
Ohio had a 61.8% turnout - down 5.1% from 2008.
Florida had a 62.2% turnout - down 3.9% from 2008.
Virginia had a 63.8% turnout - down 3.2% from 2008.
Colorado had a 65.6% turnout - down 5.4% from 2008.
North Carolina had a 64.5% turnout - down 1% from 2008.
Pennsylvania had a 57.7% turnout - down 5.9% from 2008.
Iowa had a 69.1% turnout - down 0.3% from 2008.
Nevada had a 56.9% turnout - down 0.1% from 2008.
Wisconsin had a 72.2% turnout - down 0.2% from 2008.
Michigan had a 63% turnout - down 6.2% from 2008.
In other words, there's what Will is saying (increased political advertising in swing states brings more voters to the polls) and then there's reality - spending went way up, voter turnout went down. Karl Rove, king of campaign filth, has been shedding crocodile tears over "voter suppression" caused by negative ads - perhaps he and Will should talk.

Will next attempts to play the hypocrisy card,
Media and other “nonpartisan” — please, no chortling — dismay about “too much money in politics” waned as seven of the 10 highest-spending political entities supported Democrats and outspent the three supporting Republicans, according to the Wall Street Journal.
First, the fact that you believe that campaign finance should be regulated does not mean you have to go into an election unarmed. There is nothing wrong with following the law as it presently stands, even as you're arguing that it should be changed - even as you're promising to change it if you're elected. That's not hypocrisy - it's common sense. And by the same token it's possible to be appalled by how much money you're able to raise and spend on your campaign, even as you're continuing to raise and spend that money to try to win. It's possible to be appalled by the expenditures of your favored party or candidate, yet still see the necessity of contributing to their campaign.

As Will did not link to the source of his "seven of the top ten" allegation, I had to search for it. Given that Will did not provide a link, I expected to find that his source did not say what he was implying - and sure enough it did not. In terms of dollars spent, as of the date the article's figures were compiled, the three right-wing groups spent $205.6 million, and the seven left-wing groups spent 229.8. If you remove the 27.6 spent by the Senate Democrats' Super PAC, the three outside right-wing groups outspend the remaining six Democratic outside groups. If you look at updated data, and believe that the raw count is somehow relevant to the discussion, the number shifts to 6:4 groups in favor of the Republicans.

It's also immediately apparent that Will is referring to out-of-date information. It would be one thing if November 1 were the best you could do, but... not even close. As the figures used by the WSJ come from The Center for Responsive Politics, it's easy to obtain more recent data. Surprise! The number one and two organizations on Will's list, both supporting Romney, spent an additional $136 million between when the WSJ compiled its statistics and the date of the most recent data from their named source. SEIU's spending, recited in the WSJ piece as $69 million, is listed as $30.1 million... odd? Will, I'm sure, is heartened that the top two organizations are both conservative, and both make the left-leaning groups seem woefully underfunded.

At least Will is honest in the end, at least about his motives:
The advocacy infrastructure being developed by both sides in the post-Citizens United world will, over time, favor the most plausible side, which conservatives know is theirs.
That is, despite all the window dressing, for Will it's not about the Constitution. It's not about educating voters or bringing them to the polls. It's about helping the party he supports get a structural advantage that will help it outspend the other party. It seems reasonable to infer that Will's actual fear is that his party can't win in the marketplace of ideas, and that he thus supports their being able to drown out other voices through massive campaign spending. Will can pretend it's about principle if he chooses, but it seems inescapable that the primary driver for his position on campaign funding is politics.

Update: As more votes are counted, the voter turnout picture is more mixed. For the key swing states, Virginia and Florida showed very small increases in turnout, while turnout was significantly down in Ohio. Will's position that the barrage of campaign spending increased turnout remains unsupported by the data.

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