What does all this mean? Less than you might think.
As in life, given a choice between having more money and having less, there’s hardly a person (apologies to those who take vows of poverty) who would not opt for more. The same is true of campaigns and campaign managers.
But as we all know, the road is littered with miserable rich people and, more to the point, with well-funded and self-funded campaigns that have failed, sometimes rather miserably in the end. How do you spell Ross Perot? Money doesn’t buy success, although it certainly can make the trip easier.
And in politics, the fact is that money matters most when that’s the only way to get attention. Free media versus paid media, we used to call it. These days, no matter how much money you have, there is more free media out there than paid media. And nowhere is that more true than in a presidential campaign.
Try as you might, in the coming months, you simply are not going to be able to avoid this presidential choice. Once the Olympics are over, watch out. True, the days of gavel-to-gavel coverage of conventions on the broadcast networks are long gone (along with any vestiges of suspense). But between the 24-hour cable networks, the blogs and the cut-ins even on your favorite shows, you’ll be seeing it and hearing it. And yes, just as most of us will tune in for the seventh game of the World Series whether or not we care about either of the teams or even the sport itself, so will we tune in to watch the World Series of politics, which is to say the presidential debates.
A gaffe during one of those — say, looking at your watch, the way George Bush the First did, or dispassionately opposing the death penalty for a man who (hypothetically) raped and killed your beloved wife (that was my candidate, who graciously apologized to me on the stage the second the debate was over) — counts for more than millions and millions of dollars and that many ads. A knockout — “There you go again,” said Ronald Reagan — means more than anything you can buy.
I don’t mean to suggest for a minute that there haven’t been particular ads that have dramatically affected a presidential contest. The “independently financed” ads denouncing John Kerry’s military record and his anti-war activities (“the Swift Boat ads”) absolutely mattered. But the amount spent on those ads was your proverbial drop in the bucket compared to all the other stuff the candidates put on in that race, none of which any of us can remember. Consider this: The 2004 campaign was one in which Kerry, the challenger, out-raised George W. Bush, the incumbent president. Need I remind you who won?
I can cite you chapter and verse about races that literally came out “wrong,” and I don’t just mean because the candidate I favored lost. I mean races where people literally didn’t know who they were voting for, where they elected somebody because his name was John Kennedy, or voted out a highly competent judge with a funny foreign-sounding name in favor of a bagel shop owner with a lapsed bar card. But those tend to be low-profile races. The farther up the ticket you go the more voters tend to know exactly who they’re voting for. The striking thing about presidential races, as important as the money and the handlers and the ads are, is how transparent they end up being.
So give Romney credit for raising all this money? Sure. Worry about an enthusiasm gap for the president? Why not? The chattering class needs something to chatter about.
But will money decide this election?
Susan Estrich is a law professor in Southern California.