Money and Politics in a Competitive Year


A report issued yesterday by the Federal Election Commission shows what happens when congressional candidates actually face competitive elections, as they are this year: spending goes up. It’s up by 36% overall from two years ago, the report found – a significant two-year jump even in the world of political campaigning.

The FEC report is based on reports filed by the campaigns through October 18, the final reporting deadline for congressional candidates before Election Day.

Fundraising is up as well, by about 30% overall, the report found.

Contributions from individuals grew by 25% when compared with the same time period in the 2004 campaign, while PAC contributions increased by 26% and contributions and loans from candidates themselves are nearly three times greater than 2004.

The normal reaction of people who are sensitive to the issue of money and politics is that the more money in the system, the worse the problem. More fundraising by candidates means more political IOU’s when they come to Washington.

That’s especially true with PAC contributions. PAC directors are a very pragmatic lot. Their money is allocated with cold-blooded logic and their eyes are always focused beyond Election Day to the legislative battles lying ahead.

Likewise, if candidates are funding their own campaigns at three times the rate they did in 2004, that means their first order of business after the election will be holding fundraisers to retire that personal debt.

These are the side effects of more money in politics, to be sure. But the story is not without its silver lining. After all, why are these people spending all this money in the first place?

They’re doing it because for the first time in recent memory, there’s actually competition out there, even in House races. The number of races where the outcome is still in doubt is dramatically higher than it’s been in recent years. Districts that haven’t seen competitive elections in what seems like a generation are awash in political ads this year – a reflection of the fact that no one quite knows who’s going to win next Tuesday.

All that competition must truly confound the parties’ reapportionment mavens – the demographic geniuses whose job, every ten years, is to carve out congressional districts so precisely gerrymandered that the incumbent party never has to face a serious challenge. This year the plan didn’t pan out like it was supposed to – at least not everywhere. I must confess that does give me some measure of satisfaction.

True pessimists will find plenty to despair about this election season, no matter who wins. But I’d argue that because of the extra competition this year, even the most hard-core money-in-politics reformer should be happy with a glass that to me looks at least half full, even given the sharp increase in campaign spending.

Money isn’t the root of all political evil, let us remember. It’s where that money comes from, and the influence it buys, that’s the real problem.

Predictable elections – where contributions are more blatantly a tool for lobbying than for electing people – are the most telling symptoms of a democracy that’s become dangerously dysfunctional. At least this year, that’s one problem we don’t have.