Published on TheHill.com on December 15, 2015
Money doesn’t matter (much). In this year’s Republican nominating race, the standing of the candidates for the presidency is in inverse relationship to the amount of funds they have spent.
The front-runner, Donald Trump, has spent about $250,000 on advertising. The current party runner-up, Ted Cruz, has invested just shy of $1 million. In third place — a distant third in the New York Times/CBS poll — is Marco Rubio, who has spent over $14 million on media. And bringing up the rear is Jeb Bush, who has garnered a hearty 5 percent of the vote by spending over $35 million on ads in his campaign and is en route to winning the John Connally Award for amount of money spent per delegate vote at the convention.
The lesson is clear, or should be: The importance of money is highly overvalued in a high-profile presidential race, though it is still a deciding factor in down-ballot races like those for senator and governor and is the be-all and end-all for congressional or state legislative races.
The free media coverage of a presidential race simply overwhelms what paid media can bring to a campaign. We see wonderfully produced ads for the likes of Bush and Rubio, only to see the real thing in a debate a few weeks later. This disjuncture is disturbing: The figure conjured in the ads has only the most tenuous relationship with the guy we see at the podium. Who are we to believe, the ads or our own eyes?
Paid media has some specific purposes but is hardly a cure-all for what ails a campaign.
It can provide biographic depth, particularly with a candidate with a moving life story like John McCain or Ben Carson.
It is very useful for hitting an opponent with negatives (as Mitt Romney did to Newt Gingrich and President Obama did to Romney). But, when debates come as frequently as they do in the GOP nominating process, it is easy for a candidate to debunk the accusations and nullify the ad buy, no matter how extensive.
Its greatest use is to rebut opposition attacks and to make the attacker appear untruthful or ruthless as a counter-punch.
So why do candidates spend their entire waking lives raising money if it’s not that important?
Money has become a status symbol with the media, a gauge of how seriously one should take a candidacy. For example, Mike Huckabee’s inability to raise funds solidified his status as a minor candidate. Likewise with Rick Santorum. This means the winners of the last two Iowa caucuses (Santorum in 2012 and Huckabee in 2008) are way down in the polls in this year’s Iowa contest. Why? Their limited fundraising caused the media to marginalize them and focus on Carson — who raised vast amounts — instead.
Federal Election Commission filings have become like campaign posters, attesting the strength of a candidacy — they’re show pieces to be paraded about but not actually spent. Cruz first won respectability as a candidate when he out-raised others in the first reporting period (and he continues to out-raise many of his competitors). But Cruz never had to spend the money; having it and displaying it was enough.
So, curiously, the very press that deplores the Citizens United decision and castigates the amount of campaign spending that has followed in its wake perpetuates the myth of the importance of money.
Before voters get to cast their first ballots in the primaries, candidates have to prove their credibility in the money primary and in the debate primary. These winnowing processes — rather than the decisions of the voters themselves — spell inclusion or exclusion in these pre-primary rounds.
So having a large bank account is like owning a fancy car or living in a mansion — a symbol of wealth worth more than the money itself.