Posted Online: Dec. 06, 2012, 2:48 pm
If money talks, do the voters listen?
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By Mark W. Schwiebert
On Nov. 6th, we completed the most expensive and certainly one of the most exhausting political campaigns in American history.
It has been estimated that over $6 billion was spent nationwide during this election. In our 17th Congressional District alone, the two candidates, Cheri Bustos and Bobby Schilling, raised over $4 million -- the most ever in a Congressional race in our district.
Yet another $9 million -- more than twice as much -- was spent by outside groups seeking to influence the outcome of the election. This pattern was repeated across the country, where outside money often exceeded by two to four times the amount raised and spent by the candidate himself.
This year's political campaign demonstrated the worrying effect of eliminating most campaign finance limitations as a result of the ill-considered Citizen's United case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in early 2010.
This decision essentially held that corporations -- foreign or domestic, it didn't matter -- are citizens authorized to influence elections, even though they can't vote. It also declared money spent, basically without limit, to influence elections is protected free speech under the First Amendment of the Constitution.
One could search in vain the writings of our Founding Fathers to find support for these notions. In fact, the Supreme Court reversed its own prior decisions in issuing this questionable ruling. But there it is: by a 5-4 vote, the current U.S. Supreme Court has, at least for now, spoken.
So this year we were awash in campaign spending and negative ads -- particularly in communities like ours, adjacent to "battleground" states like Iowa.
So what came of all the spending? Did "money talk" as the old saying goes? Well, it clearly did, judging by the volume and velocity of campaign ads this fall.
However, the interesting thing is that in a lot of cases where money talked, it appears the voters didn't listen. In numerous races where the most money was spent to support a particular candidate, the candidate lost anyway.
Consider Joe Walsh, running as an incumbent congressman in Illinois' Eighth Congressional District. Between the money his campaign and outside groups spent to get him reelected, the prodigious sum of over $70 per voter was spent for each of the 100,000 votes he received -- far more than his opponent. And he still lost.
The story nationwide was much the same: candidates spending the most money were often defeated. One organization, headed by the vicious Karl Rove, spent an astonishing $300 million, and 94 percent of the money went to support losing candidates.
What is encouraging about this is that in election after election across the country, the force of ideas and good old fashioned organization (updated with 21st century technology) overcame the power of money to win elections.
Of course, in part, this was because so much of the outside money was spent for negative advertising. This turns voters off; particularly when done in the "carpet bombing" fashion we experienced around here over the last several months.
But equally important, ideas still matter. The candidates who got their message out and then got their supporters to vote early or on Election Day generally prevailed.
Unfortunately, having said this, money still clearly makes a difference. Especially after the Citizen's United ruling, a candidate without a substantial war chest can't get his message out or even rebuff the ugly untruths the opposition may peddle. Perhaps one of the most tragic consequences of this situation is that candidates are forced to spend most of their time raising campaign cash instead of formulating alliances or strategies to solve our nation's many pressing economic, environmental and social problems. And this doesn't consider the corruption implicit to a system based on political debts to very large contributors.
Campaign finance reform is clearly needed. Restrictions on the level of contributions and spending, shortening the election season, and mandating disclosure of contributors in excess of specified limits, all could help tone down the negativism and ridiculous spending we witnessed this year.
But until the Supreme Court either reverses its Citizen's United ruling to allow reasonable reforms, or until a constitutional amendment overrides this mischievous decision, we will likely see more over-the-top campaign fund raising, spending, and negative ads such as we endured this election season.
For our peace of mind and the good of the country, let's hope one or the other happens and soon.
Mark W. Schwiebert, an attorney, served as mayor of Rock Island for 20 years.