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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.