Attack ads

This year, some investments did not pay; voters too smart to fall for negative ads

Coloradans, who were in a passing mood this year, passed Amendment 65, which calls on Colorado’s congressional delegation to support campaign finance limits. The impetus was clear: rich “people” (including, since the 2010 Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission Supreme Court ruling, corporations) should not be able to buy elections by making them unaffordable for everyone else.

And yet, this year’s big campaign money did not make the difference its donors were counting on it to make.

Donald Trump’s famously tweeted, “Congrats to @KarlRove on blowing $400 million this cycle. Every race @CrossroadsGPS ran ads in, the Republicans lost. What a waste of money.”

Rove can argue with Trump about the absolute accuracy of that message, but the gist of it is true: Money given to Rove to invest in this election did not produce a good return, and Rove was not the only power broker left holding an empty money bag.

The election did produce some winners, including Progressive Insurance owner Peter Lewis, who reportedly contributed $800,000 to the effort to decriminalize recreational marijuana use in Colorado. Lewis is from Ohio.

Money poured into Colorado’s state House District 59, one of the races deemed essential to control of the General Assembly. (Montezuma County voters, now redistricted into the 58th, were amused to see anti-J. Paul Brown ads popping up on many of the websites they viewed – a sign, perhaps, that some advertising dollars could be more accurately targeted, even though Brown did lose in the end.) In most elections, the winning side had been the beneficiary of significant spending, some of it from people who did not care about an individual race except as it contributed to a majority.

But the big spending did not pay off predictably. The Los Angeles Times cites one California proposition on which backers – auto insurers – spent $17.1 million, only to lose to opponents who collected only $275,000.

Those results do not prove political spending does not work. Sometimes, it does, very well. There were many forces in play in this election, including divisive primary battles, last-minute surprises, unwillingness to believe the polls and momentum that everyone seemed reluctant to believe. Voters who have already made up their minds are likely to toss campaign mailers directly into the wastebasket and mute offensive commercials. And, sometimes, especially in smaller populations, precinct walks and personal reputations can outweigh any amount of advertising.

Rove, ever the cynic, managed to convince a lot of big-money donors that was not true, that negative advertising (because at his level, that is all there was) could sway voters despite their personal experiences, their ideology, their ability and apparent willingness to research issues and come to their own conclusions. That his expensive attempts at manipulation, and those of others on both sides of the partisan divide did not always work suggest Americans are developing a healthy resistance to the tone and content of super PAC advertising.

That would be a good move toward more civil and honest elections.

Citizens United still needs to be remedied – although Amendment 65, which is wholly symbolic, is not the solution – because big donors tend to have a lot at stake in elections, in ways not congruent with the interests of human citizens. But if voters stopped responding to negative campaigning – if a party held a character assassination and no one showed up – campaign contributions might come to be spent in ways intended to inform citizens rather than tricking them and scaring them into voting against their own interests.

That sounds like progress.

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