Letter from Washington — From the April 2016 issue

Down the Tube

Television, turnout, and the election-industrial complex

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“I never met a politician who started out to be a fund-raiser,” remarked Mike McKenna, a Republican energy lobbyist and recipient of constant pleas for cash from lawmakers. For years, he has watched them dial for dollars and endure nightly gatherings convened for the extraction of donations — “grim affairs,” in his phrase — because they have been convinced such efforts are vital for survival at the polls. “Most of them run for office because they want to achieve something,” he told me. “But once they get there, they spend their time raising money. I don’t know a single one who enjoys it.” Ironically, he explained over a beer on K Street, most of the money they raise is wasted, especially on expensive TV campaigns that do nothing to move voters. The principal effect of these labors, he insisted, is to “feed the consultant class.”

My companion was referring to the strategists, pollsters, TV-ad makers, media buyers, direct-mail specialists, broadcasters, and other subcategories of what we should properly call the election-industrial complex. Amid an economy that has bumped along since the 2008 crash, this industry has enjoyed a staggering growth curve, barely matched in percentage terms even by its military counterpart, as candidates and campaigns rattle their begging bowls ever more furiously with each cycle.

Illustration by Darrel Rees

Illustration by Darrel Rees

Such manic spending is driven by a core belief of modern American politics: the votes can be bought if the check is big enough. “You now have the potential of two hundred people deciding who ends up being elected president every single time,” Barack Obama told a select group of donors gathered in Medina, Washington, in February 2012. “I mean, there are five or six people in this room tonight [who] could simply make a decision, ‘This will be the next president,’ and probably at least get a nomination.” Obama’s audience, which included several billionaires, had each paid $17,900 into his reelection coffers to attend. According to Ken Vogel, indefatigable chronicler of political money flows, the president’s jeremiad contained the obligatory reference to the brothers Koch and their famously bottomless war chest — an ever-reliable bogeyman, of course, for Democratic fund-raisers.

Thanks in part to such invocations, the 2012 election generated a shade under $7 billion for the industry, an all-time record. A single Republican consulting firm, Crossroads Media, collected no less than $248 million during the campaign, even though it was on the losing side. But the $7 billion figure will almost certainly be dwarfed by the 2016 total, as indicated by just one astounding statistic: a week before this year’s New Hampshire primary, the contending campaigns had already spent $100 million there on TV ads. In the previous election, by contrast, the campaigns had invested a mere fiftieth of that amount on TV at the same point.

Unquestioning faith in the power of money is occasionally shaken by a discordant note. This year, there was the public fiasco of Right to Rise USA, Jeb Bush’s $118 million super PAC, which spent almost $65 million before the first primary vote was cast and yielded wretched showings in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina before the candidate finally pulled the plug. Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, meanwhile rode into the race as the reputed candidate of the Koch brothers and their fabled billions, along with a $20 million super PAC, and swiftly vanished without a trace.

In contrast, Donald Trump soared ever higher in the polls while boasting that he had no need to raise money because he had plenty of his own (of which he spent comparatively little). Garnering free time on TV thanks to his entertainment value and skillful use of social media, Trump appeared to call the whole election-complex model into question, earning him “few friends in the campaign industry,” according to a December article in the trade journal Campaigns and Elections. Yet the professionals remained unruffled, opining that as a billionaire celebrity, Trump was one of a kind, and anyway, he wouldn’t last long once the polls opened. “I’m concerned for the country,” the Democratic consultant Mark Mellman told Campaigns and Elections when asked about Trump’s ascent. “I’m not concerned for the industry.”

Mellman, two-time winner of the journal’s 2014 award for “Best Bare-Knuckled Street Fight Victory,” was right. Before too long, Trump fell into line, at least to the extent of spending heavily on TV. In addition, anti-Trump ads have generated much bonus revenue for the industry: Our Principles, a super PAC that has spent $3.3 million this election, was launched for the specific purpose of attacking him, while Right to Rise adorned an Iowa roadside with a billboard reading “donald trump is unhinged” — jeb bush. Otherwise, nothing has changed. The consultants continue to be amply fed, so Hillary Clinton must regularly exit the campaign trail to hunt for money — every two days, on average, in the month before the Iowa caucuses. Bernie Sanders’s money-raising prowess generates admiring comment all around. Marco Rubio kowtows to the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who pumped a reputed $150 million into industry pockets during the 2012 contest, though his preferred candidates mostly lost anyway.

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is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine and the author, most recently, of Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins.

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