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.”
In fact, this kind of journalistic probing should not be reserved solely for the independent expenditure groups who have attracted so much attention this cycle in the wake of the Citizens United decision and toothless FEC oversight. Ideally, political reporters would also press each presidential campaign and party committee to reveal the terms of its major contracts with outside consultants. This should, in theory, be a simple question of the media upholding the rights of small campaign contributors. It is akin to the way the press has long protected donors from corrupt or self-serving charities.
In all likelihood, both presidential campaigns would refuse to go beyond FEC-mandated disclosure requirements, perhaps by claiming that any additional information about consulting contracts would undermine their secret-sauce strategies. (Color me skeptical that knowing who is raking in, say, five percent of the vast Obama or Romney media buy is a legitimate trade secret). But even if the campaign high commands resist unraveling their complex arrangements with consultants, reporters should—at a minimum—note this insistence on secrecy in their stories.
As admirable as all the efforts by the political press corps and foundation-backed groups to chart the sources of campaign donations may be, that is only half of the double-entry bookkeeping side of the ledger. What is missing is an equal curiosity about where campaign funds are going and who is profiting from all the spending. The fall presidential election campaigns will be a $2 billion business—and that alone should invite some long overdue press scrutiny of the inner workings of Politics Inc.