But the presidential general-election campaign is a huge exception to these political orthodoxies. With four days of national conventions plus three presidential debates—plus nearly four years of the Obama presidency and the GOP primary campaign—voters have such strong impressions of the candidates from news coverage that TV commercials only matter at the margins. (The independent expenditure 2004 Swift Boats ads that helped sink John Kerry represent a now-outmoded counter-example. The spots first aired at the moment of Kerry’s maximum vulnerability: when he was exhausted and nearly broke after winning the Democratic primaries. Kerry was also the last Democratic presidential nominee to accept federal funding for the fall campaign and the spending limitations that came with it).
That is why the only financial issue that matters in shaping the outcome of the fall presidential election is whether the campaigns are in rough parity. A $50 million or $100 million difference between the Obama and Romney forces in a $2 billion race would be a rounding error, not a major strategic advantage. But many reporters get caught up in the raw data of campaign fundraising totals and independent expenditure figures that are released by the Federal Election Commission, and write with the assumption that these numbers are invariably meaningful. In contrast, a Washington Post article in late March by Dan Eggen represented a praiseworthy effort at debunking the conventional wisdom: “Super PACs could have a more limited impact on the general election than it appears from the Republican primaries, where they have dominated spending in part because most of the candidates have raised relatively little.”
When presidential horse-race reporters compare piles of candidate contributions and Super PAC swag, they assume that all campaigns are equally efficient in deploying this cash on the political battlefield. What raw fund-raising numbers hide is whether anyone is getting rich (or richer) as they try to elect a president. Almost never asked are questions like: How much personal profit are the ad-makers, the outside strategists, the pollsters, and the fundraising consultants making? What are their contractual arrangements, which can be as much as eight to 10 percent of the TV ad buy? Which campaign is being more parsimonious with donor dollars?
These numbers are invariably hidden in the FEC reports, which are far more concerned with detailing donations than in shedding light on the impenetrable compensation formulas for outside consultants. (I wrote extensively about the presumed high profit margins that come with the Campaign-Industrial Complex in a recent article for the Washington Monthly).
And without these numbers carefully spelled out in the government reports, reporters engage in their own version of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Since high-priced campaign consultants tend to be among the best sources for national political reporters, it is often considered unseemly to ask them about money. But probably more debilitating are the mental blinders that prevent reporters from even thinking about these who-benefits questions. An admirable exception to this journalistic code of silence was a February Los Angeles Times story by Melanie Mason and Matea Gold. Their reporting uncovered that a direct-mail firm headed by Nick Ryan, a former Santorum aide, received more than $500,000 from the super PAC aligned with the Santorum campaign. The article also revealed that Paul Begala, one of the architects of Bill Clinton’s 1992 victory and a frequent Democratic commentator on cable TV, had collected $200,000 in consulting fees from a super PAC supporting Obama’s reelection.
Roll Call, too, deserves plaudits for hitting a similar theme in an April 17 piece by Eliza Newlin Carney. But at the same time, that article naively asserts that candidate committees, in contrast to Super PACs, “tend to run on passions and volunteers.”