Opinion: Campaigns Are Rewarded For Winning, Not Being Cost-Effective
NPR's Scott Simon reflects on the record amount of money spent this campaign season, a goodly amount spent by candidates who did not win.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Does it still pay to follow the money in politics? Some of the campaigns that raised the most money in the 2020 election still lost. Jaime Harrison's campaign for the Senate in South Carolina raised more than $107 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign money, $40 million more than his incumbent Republican opponent, Lindsey Graham. Mr. Harrison lost. So did the other candidates who raised the most - $88 million in Kentucky, 68 million in Maine, 47 million in Iowa - in four of the five most expensive Senate races, each of which attracted national attention.
The money in state campaigns sits atop enormous spending by political action committees. The National Republican Senatorial Committee spent $139.8 million, the Democratic Senatorial Committee, $133.9 million, Senate Majority PAC, $78.9 million, and the America First PAC, $36.2 million. All this money amassed in a time of hardship in America.
Campaigns are rewarded for winning, not being cost-effective. They do not want to be outspent by their opponents. As Barack Obama memorably invoked a line from "The Untouchables" when he ran for president in 2008 and declined public funding and campaign spending limits, if they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun. A losing campaign may only regret that they didn't spend even more money. But the cost of the 2020 campaigns for the presidency, House and Senate is estimated by the Center for Responsive Politics to be nearly $14 billion, twice the previous high set in 2016. That's appalling, former Wisconsin Democratic Senator Russell Feingold told us this week. And what's more, it often doesn't work. Both sides exploit the rules to keep raising more.
Senator Feingold co-authored campaign finance reform legislation with the late Senator John McCain. It passed in 2002 but was undermined by the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision in 2010. He's now head of the American Constitution Society. He believes state campaigns that bring in huge amounts from national PACs and donors can actually hurt a candidate by making them appear to be the choice of outsiders.
You have to wonder in 2020 what some of those billions spent on politics might have meant if they'd been given directly to food banks or for rent assistance. Democracy may be priceless, but does that mean political campaigns should be without price limits?
(SOUNDBITE OF RYAN TEAGUE'S "LIMINAL SPACE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.