When Money Doesn’t Work


One of the safest assumptions you can make in the world of politics is that the more money you have, compared to your opponent, the better your chances of winning. But even the safest assumptions are sometimes wrong, and there’s one special case where an abundance of money can do more harm than good: when the voters already know who you are, don’t like you, and find each new commercial an unpleasant reminder of exactly how much they don’t like you.

After all, annoying ads, repeated endlessly, don’t suddenly start working after the 50th viewing. They only build resentment, and that’s true whether the advertiser is a pain reliever or a political candidate.

Traditionally, political consultants count on their “paid media” – advertising – to overcome any negative spin from the less controllable “free media” – news coverage. But sometimes the roar of that free media overcomes even the heftiest advertising budget, and this is one of those times for House Republicans.

There’s still another month to go before Election Day and, as we all know, anything can happen. But absent a distraction as significant as a major terrorist attack, the image of Mark Foley hitting on teenage pages – and the lack of action by the GOP leadership to contain him – could loom as large in November as it does today.

If that’s so, no amount of money can rescue the party on Election Day. Certainly the great majority of incumbents – Democrats and Republicans – will still be reelected in November. But in the close races, the ones where those extra advertising dollars were supposed to assure a close-enough win, the original script is no longer likely to work.

Voters are often willing to look past personal failings in their political leaders, if they’re humble enough about it. But hypocrisy is the one unforgivable sin. Mark Foley has already paid the price for that – or at least started paying. House Speaker Dennis Hastert may be next. But the biggest casualty is likely to be the Republican majority in Congress.

They’ve staked their fortunes on those famous “values” voters who care as much about public morality as they do about trade deficits, the price of gas, or even the war in Iraq. Such voters are not amused by the latest headlines from Capitol Hill, and they’re not likely to forget – no matter how many ads they see between now and Election Day.

That’s a tough problem for GOP strategists and it will be interesting to see how they react. This is one time when the time-honored solution – throwing more money at the problem – just isn’t going to work.