Letter from Washington — From the April 2016 issue

Down the Tube

Television, turnout, and the election-industrial complex

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With this scenario in mind, it’s worth examining where all the money has gone in the current presidential race. The $118 million collected for Jeb Bush’s Right to Rise USA (by fund-raisers working, of course, on commission) certainly endeared him to the consultant class. But if the election-industrial complex likes Jeb, it must love Ben Carson. The soft-spoken neurosurgeon’s campaign committee and super PACs had taken in more than $64 million as of the first week of February, of which they spent some $57 million — most of it on raising more money. In the first three months of 2014, for example, the National Draft Ben Carson for President Committee alone raised $2.4 million, outstripping even Hillary Clinton’s cash-harvesting operations during the same period. It spent half of this sum on firms associated with Bruce Eberle, noted for his fund-rasing work with black conservatives like Carson and the briefly high-flying Herman Cain, candidates who are unlikely to win elections but entirely likely to excite the generosity of low-income donors.

A sample of what those donors were buying landed on my doormat in Washington earlier this year. Given that Obama won 90 percent of the city’s votes in 2012, it might seem that the dollar or so it cost to produce and deliver the elaborate Carson mailer — especially to a household that has never sent a nickel to a conservative Republican candidate — was a waste. But Jon Coley, a direct-mail specialist deemed by many a master of the art, told me that the mailer I received was by no means a waste to the consultant. “The more you mail, the more money you make,” he explained on the phone from his pickup while patrolling his cattle farm in Wellington, Alabama. “No more work goes into mailing a hundred and fifty thousand people than fifty thousand people — and there’s a markup per piece.”

Carson’s flailing enterprise is far from the only proof that a losing campaign can be nearly as profitable as a winning one. After Newt Gingrich pulled out of the 2012 race, a firm called TMA Direct brought in an additional $1 million by renting out his and other donor lists. Another firm, Granite Lists, currently offers the 69,552 names on Scott Walker’s list for a mere $8,694 — a great deal, says the company, for “conservative candidates, organizations, and antiunion causes.” The more capacious universe of Mitt Romney donors, meanwhile, can be rented for $131,468.

A practice known as rev-share makes the lists even more valuable for the campaigns — and the consultants — that originally compiled them. Many rental agreements specify that a sizable fraction of some initial sum raised by the list — or, indeed, the entire sum — must be paid to the original owner. Thereafter, the renter is free to use the list exclusively for his own benefit. Everyone wins (Granite’s standard brokerage commission is 20 percent) except the unwitting donor, whose money may have found its way to a candidate he or she despises. As Vincent Harris, a digital strategist for the Rand Paul campaign, told Politico: “Sometimes 60 percent, 70 percent, 100 percent of your donation is going into the pocket of some consultant.” Some consultants, he added, have become millionaires by this means alone.

Profitable as such shadowy transactions may be, they pale in comparison with the mother lode of television. Indeed, broadcasters themselves constitute an essential wing of the election-industrial complex. “Super PACs may be bad for America, but they’re very good for CBS,” crowed CEO Les Moonves in 2012, explaining that he expected election spending to boost his network’s annual profits by $180 million. The 2016 election promises to be even more lucrative.

As Trevor Potter observes, this titanic influx of cash presents a major conflict of interest, since the networks are simultaneously “supposed to be doing news reporting about spending and what’s going on in the world of politics.” Unsurprisingly, TV news reporters seldom dwell on the ineffectiveness of the ads that pay their salaries. But the bigger contradiction remains: quite simply, television does not deliver. There are exceptions to this rule — TV ads may be crucial in bringing an unknown candidate to the public’s attention — but a growing body of academic research confirms it. In one 2008 experiment, for example, researchers studied voters subjected to heavy TV advertising, then compared their reactions with those of voters who had viewed little or none. They found that the first group was no more likely to vote than the second.

According to David Broockman, a political scientist at Stanford, multiple studies have demonstrated that such ads are essentially self-erasing. “There really is not much evidence that TV has a long-lasting effect on people’s views,” he told me. “Someone sees a TV ad on Monday afternoon, they change who they say they’ll vote for on a survey on Tuesday, but by Wednesday, their view has snapped back to what it was on Monday morning before they saw the ad, because they’ve just forgotten it.”

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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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