The Campaign Finance Bottom Line

Do you ever wonder why the media covers election campaigns so vigorously? Is it really necessary to know what each of the dozen-plus major-party early presidential candidates are doing on a daily basis, and what’s going on among their campaign staffs, and what their spouses like to eat and what sports their kids like to play?

It may just be that reporters are innately curious people, and once they start covering a story like a campaign, they get interested on a micro level. It may be that editors and producers believe that informing the electorate is one of journalism’s most sacred and valuable duties. It may be that, if you’re covering a candidate and waiting for big news to happen, you might as well report all the small news along the way since big news so rarely happens.

Or it may be that members of the media, consciously or otherwise, know that lots of coverage — especially of the horse-race variety — brings in lots of political advertising for their newspapers and TV and radio stations. Today’s Wall Street Journal, for instance, reports on political campaigns’ massive ad buys, including a recent surge in newspapers and their online editions:

At a time when many categories of newspaper advertising are declining, the political message is making a comeback. As overall spending on campaigns doubled to $3.1 billion between 2002 and 2006, the amount spent on newspapers, including their online editions, tripled to $104 million, according to PQ Media.

This is why I have always thought that so much of the talk about campaign finance reform is lip service. Although we argued in Freakonomics that the importance of campaign spending is greatly overvalued in electoral outcomes, there is no doubt that campaign spending has a huge impact on the finances of an awful lot of people — media companies, political consultants, web designers, hotels, audio-visual technicians, caterers, direct mailers, paraphernalia manufacturers, and on and on.

The bottom line is that political campaigns are really good for the bottom line, especially the bottom line of media outlets. They are also great news for fans of wealth redistribution: campaigns take money from wealthy contributors and spread it around to everyone else.

So while you can expect to see a lot of articles and TV pieces in the next 16 months that bemoan how much money the candidates raise and spend, you should know that they don’t really mean it.


egretman

I have an alternative explanation.

It's cheap to cover. It's the equivalent of local news covering the police blotter. It's always easy to find talking heads for on-air video. The campaigns pay for a lot of the travel, etc.

It's cheap. Whereas, it's expensive to do investigative reporting on the shenanigans of guvment.

dilbert69

If campaign spending has so little influence on the outcomes of elections, why do our elected officials insist on doing the bidding of mega-corporations instead of that of the common person?

Jon Barnard

The ad market is huge. Newspapers take in about US$50 billion a year (see here , for example). US$104 million here or there will make only a fractional difference to the bottom line of most newspapers.

Jon Barnard

(US$104 million spread across the whole market, that is!)

editorguy

I tend to agree more with egretman. Cheap and easy = lazy. It's lazy coverage. NPR, where I have higher expectations than TV and most newspapers, drives me insane with their coverage of spending totals this far away from the general election. There may be advertising being taken into consideration, but it's the free advertising that the news outlets give the current big spenders -- Hillary and Obama -- that really irks me. The result is a constant message hammered home to voters of "second tier" candidates. It's tough enough to vote for a non-mainstream candidate in this country. We're at a point now where it's feasible to feel sorry even for John Edwards, for chrissake.

frankenduf

no need to be cynical- the campaign should get ubiquitous media coverage- the problem is that pay-to-play corrupts the process- campaign funding should be federally controlled, with mandatory 'free' TV coverage (the airways are public- as editorguy says- for chrissake)

lgritz

The evil of campaign spending is not that it changes who gets elected, but rather that those who are elected feel beholden to the people or industries who donated.

TomJByrne4

I agree. with lgritz. Money may not directly influence the outcome, but it limits who can run and what politicians do after they get elected.

egretman

Money may not directly influence the outcome, but it limits who can run and what politicians do after they get elected

You are describing an irrational world. "Money has nothing to do with who gets elected, and yet the politician is beholding to those who gave it." This is impossible. If you believe in economics, eventually cause and effect would become obvious and politicians with no money would win just as often. And money would leave.

egretman

...god doesn't play dice with politics.

tomrlutong

A possibly relavent story from the a 2006 congressional race: Shortly before elction day, the local newspaper's editorial board would have a closed-door meeting with the two candidates. In the meeting, the editors would grill the candidates on various issues, watch them interact, then retire to decide who they'd endorse.

I was escorting the candidate to the meeting, and we're waiting for the elevator, going over a few last minute bits of prep, and generally getting his game face on. Then, a woman comes running across the newsroom, buttonholes the candidate, and right there asks him if he wants to commit to buying ad space on their op-ed page! Utterly shameless.

On a more general note, remember, political campaigns make news, in the sense of "make shoes", not in the sense of "made the big time." That's their job. You make it as easy as possible for journalists to run stories about the campaign, and you keep the pipeline full.

From a micro point of view, you could say that campaigns reduce the price to the newspaper of creating stories about the race, with the natural result that the quantity of such stories increases.

There may also be a bit of a stickiness effect: news organizations assign particular reporters to particular beats (either a race or a candidate), and once that's in place, it's much easier for that reporter to produce another story on their beat than for them to switch into some new context. Similarly, in major campaigns, you keep reporters on the candidates to catch the low-probability-high-payoff big stories, and thus end up producing a bunch of stories that are, in themselves, not worth the reporter's time.

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Razela

I think that is why unconventional media sources are becoming more popular as a sources of campaign news. As a political vlogger on YouTube, I have found that even though I'm not a big media personality many people are willing to trust my judgments and opinions over the big news networks. Probably much of that is that I don't have a personal stake in any of the campaigns and I don't exactly have anything to lose for making bold claims. I know that I am more likely to trust the average blogger/vlogger who is not tied to other powerful interests regarding what they report.

egretman

I have an alternative explanation.

It's cheap to cover. It's the equivalent of local news covering the police blotter. It's always easy to find talking heads for on-air video. The campaigns pay for a lot of the travel, etc.

It's cheap. Whereas, it's expensive to do investigative reporting on the shenanigans of guvment.

dilbert69

If campaign spending has so little influence on the outcomes of elections, why do our elected officials insist on doing the bidding of mega-corporations instead of that of the common person?

Jon Barnard

The ad market is huge. Newspapers take in about US$50 billion a year (see here , for example). US$104 million here or there will make only a fractional difference to the bottom line of most newspapers.

Jon Barnard

(US$104 million spread across the whole market, that is!)

editorguy

I tend to agree more with egretman. Cheap and easy = lazy. It's lazy coverage. NPR, where I have higher expectations than TV and most newspapers, drives me insane with their coverage of spending totals this far away from the general election. There may be advertising being taken into consideration, but it's the free advertising that the news outlets give the current big spenders -- Hillary and Obama -- that really irks me. The result is a constant message hammered home to voters of "second tier" candidates. It's tough enough to vote for a non-mainstream candidate in this country. We're at a point now where it's feasible to feel sorry even for John Edwards, for chrissake.

frankenduf

no need to be cynical- the campaign should get ubiquitous media coverage- the problem is that pay-to-play corrupts the process- campaign funding should be federally controlled, with mandatory 'free' TV coverage (the airways are public- as editorguy says- for chrissake)

lgritz

The evil of campaign spending is not that it changes who gets elected, but rather that those who are elected feel beholden to the people or industries who donated.

TomJByrne4

I agree. with lgritz. Money may not directly influence the outcome, but it limits who can run and what politicians do after they get elected.