Whether they touted Meg Whitman or the legalization of marijuana, urged raising taxes for parks or scuttling (or preserving) the climate change law, it seemed as though all of this year’s political campaigns promised they were good for California’s economy. In a way, it was true.
The campaigns and their allied forces poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the state. Sure, most of it went for advertising and consultants, but think trickle-down economics: Mountains of pizza were bought for those late-night strategy meetings. Hotel clerks were tipped by candidates stumping throughout the state. Legal secretaries were on hand for the legions of lawyers. Infusions of cash went to media companies — though rats, wouldn’t you know most of it went to radio and TV instead of print.
Much of this largesse we owe to Whitman. If not for her gubernatorial ambitions, would she have spread a cool $140-million-plus of her personal wealth around the state?
In a bit of post-election hubris, some California voters are now patting themselves on the back precisely because Whitman and other big-cash campaigns lost out. It’s a sign, they argue, that money alone, even wads of it, can’t buy the state’s votes.
“Big corporate money couldn’t buy democracy in California Tuesday,” crowed the liberal nonprofit Consumer Watchdog, noting that on Proposition 23, “oil companies’ millions could not trick Californians into repealing their greenhouse gas emissions caps.” Whitman paid “roughly $50 for each of her 3-million-plus votes, and got trounced,” columnist Steve Lopez wrote in this paper. “Maybe it wasn’t too bright after all.”
More than most, this election showed how quirkily money can operate in political campaigns. Whitman would have remained an unknown to most voters had she not had so many tens of millions of dollars to invest in her political aspirations. Without money, an outsider — with no political background and no statewide name recognition — would have had no chance to win even the primary, much less prevail in the general election.
Yet in the end, Whitman’s money may also have worked against her. Although she set records in campaign spending for a governor’s race, she had never expended personal capital in the years before her run. She had voted infrequently; she had not been involved in politics or public policy to help out her state; she never threw herself into an issue as Arnold Schwarzenegger had with his proposition to fund after-school programs.
Her expenditures also created dissonance between the candidate and her message. Whitman renounced the idea of throwing money at the state’s problems; she was the fiscal conservative who insisted that cannier, leaner spending would still deliver the services that Californians want and need. Yet Whitman was the one who threw money at the campaign process, not always effectively, while Jerry Brown, with a much smaller war chest, was the parsimonious, tactical candidate. Whitman managed to hand to Brown — a man born to politics, with name recognition to spare — the role she sought for herself as frugal outsider.
Both in the state and nationwide, pundits point gleefully to other races in which deep pockets failed to persuade. Self-funded candidates, of which Whitman was the most obvious example, did particularly poorly. Consider Linda McMahon, the failed Connecticut Senate candidate who provided nearly $47 million to her campaign.
Should we conclude from this that money doesn’t unduly influence elections? Probably not. It would be a mistake for voters to view Brown’s defeat of Whitman as a victory of the little guy against big money, or to think that they know better than to fall for multimillion-dollar ad campaigns. For one thing, Whitman’s deep pockets were extremely helpful to her in clearing the GOP field for the primary. Her chief rival, Steve Poizner, claimed that she tried to use her money to intimidate him into dropping out, with a consultant warning that Whitman could spend up to $40 million “tearing up Steve.” She ultimately spent about $68 million on her primary campaign, emerging from political obscurity to beat Poizner, who put $24 million of his own money toward his run. (Her other rival, former Rep. Tom Campbell, dropped out because he couldn’t compete financially and ran for the Senate instead, a race in which Carly Fiorina’s money gave her an edge over him as well.)
Voters are also more aware of campaign spending when the entity behind it is easy to identify. Whitman became known across California as the EBay billionaire. On Proposition 23, just the words “backed by out-of-state oil” were enough to turn many voters against it. But more amorphous and less visible were the business people who spent money to defeat the measure and who were acting in their own best financial interests.
Marketing studies show that even consumers who think they are impervious to advertising — not just political commercials but the ones selling cars, toothpaste and medications as well — are actually deeply affected by it. That’s all the more true when we’re not fully aware of who’s behind all those ads or what their agenda is. A series of attack ads against state Sen. Gloria Romero effectively sank her bid for superintendent of public instruction in the primary. Romero was the reform candidate who urged more accountability from teachers and schools; the California Teachers Assn., one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the state, wanted union-friendly Assemblyman Tom Torlakson to win — and he did.
The forces behind our elections gained further protection from the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in January that corporations and unions could make unlimited contributions to independent campaigns for or against a candidate. These contributions are often made anonymously. Such independent campaigns emerged as a potent force for Republicans this campaign season, and now Democrats are talking about increasing their use. The big corrupting factor in politics is not so much the Meg Whitmans and their personal millions as the campaign contributors we have no way of identifying.
Total spending by candidates, parties, corporations, unions and other outside groups in the 2010 midterm elections is expected to reach a final tally of $4 billion. In the absence of workable public financing systems, meaningful contribution limits or strict disclosure rules, the job of resisting undue influence is left mostly to individual voters, who will not learn the deeper truths about candidates or issues from 30-second TV or radio spots. It takes reading the news, watching debates, asking questions and demanding answers. It takes the work of being a citizen.