How much difference did all the SuperPac money make?

One big question in the aftermath of this election will be whether the power of big money will be seen as impotent. We’ve heard these stories of SuperPAC money migrating into safe red and blue states at the end of the election because there was literally no time left on the air in the swing states. Billions – yes, billions – of dollars were spent on TV advertising, with no discernible impact.

Free media in the form of a debate was the only thing that changed the trajectory of the race, and even then for only a bit. The race on November 6 at the Presidential level looks a lot like it looked several months ago, despite all those ads. The only people to benefit from them were those consultants who made scads of money placing the ads.

So will the “fever break” among the big-money funders? Probably not, at least not below the Presdential level. Influencing a Presidential race, when the major parties will always be able to capture enough money to compete, was always a dicey proposition. The smartest last-minute money shifted into the US Senate races. But even there, we saw battered but resilient candidates like Sen. Sherrod Brown and Tammy Baldwin withstand these shocks.

I imagine we’ll hear after the fact about some state legislative or state judicial or even Congressional race that got swamped by late money. There are still plenty of opportunities to do this under the radar. As you get to the more prominent races, you see diminishing returns.

I don’t know that the money goes away – rich people are vain enough to believe they can change the world, regardless of reality. They just might put the money into different places. Television advertising clearly has a saturation point, beyond which it becomes completely ineffective. And in an age of increasing amounts of DVRs, this will only continue.

There are ways to impact elections, but they have to do more with person-to-person contacts and targeted advertising. This is already happening: “volunteers” are being paid $15 an hour to knock on doors. You’re not going to stop money in politics. But you might see it channeled in different ways.

The campaign finance restrictions, or what’s left of them, will get tested as well – especially the previously-obscure law that allows candidates to obtain lower advertising rates than outside groups. Expect that to get litigated very soon.

In the end, the most effective money is not the money spent on campaigns, but the money spent on lobbying members of Congress, and the implied money THREATENED to be spent on those members if they don’t vote the right way. The money actually spent on campaigns acts more like window dressing.

David Dayen

David Dayen