The Campaign-Finance Stories That Don’t Get Written

Consultants and insiders feed the fundraising frenzy. How much do they make, anyway?

There was something comically self-evident about the headline on the story that led the April 13 print edition of The New York Times: “Campaigns Plan Maximum Push to Raise Money.” Unless the political world is struck by a wave of Gandhian self-abnegation, it is nearly impossible to imagine a scenario that would justify the opposite headline: “Campaigns Languid About Money in White House Race.”

The actual story, by Nicholas Confessore, was standard-issue money-in-politics journalism. It offered vague estimates that as much as $1 billion each could be spent on behalf of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney; it predicted the final breakdown of the federal public financing system; it included the obligatory ain’t-it-terrible quote from the president of Common Cause; and it detailed the role that super PACs and state party committees will play in the upcoming presidential race.

What makes the article relevant for our purposes was both its placement on the Times front page and the generic qualities that make it almost certain to be replicated in the weeks ahead. The next day, April 14, Politico featured a story by Kenneth P. Vogel and Robin Bravender headlined, “Democratic super PACs gain ground but still trail GOP in fundraising.” Confessore returned to the topic April 16 in a widely quoted blog post for the Times detailing an internal Romney memo that put the campaign’s fundraising goals (in conjunction with the Republican Party) at $800 million, with an estimated additional $200 million slated to come from super PACs.

Money in presidential politics is a worthy topic covering everything from the contortions that candidates go through to raise it (Obama, according to Confessore, has already held more than 100 major fund-raisers) to the presidential access major donors receive in all administrations (remember Bill Clinton’s White House coffees and Lincoln Bedroom sleep-overs?). But the problem with most campaign spending coverage (and I am not trying to single out either Confessore or the Times) is what it leaves out. The stories almost invariably reflect the narrow world view of campaign consultants and politics insiders, which holds that more money always equals more votes in presidential politics.

Missing from the equation is skepticism about the self-interested role of political insiders and campaign consultants in ballyhooing the merits of unlimited campaign spending. Good reporters would not be swayed if prominent Realtors trumpeted the benefits of home ownership over renting, but there is a long tradition of glossing over the built-in bias of campaign ad-makers and strategists when they prophesize doom if candidates fail to raise more money to pay for their services. A typical example is the April 16 Associated Press dispatch by Ken Thomas about the president’s March fundraising haul, which noted, “Obama’s campaign team has tried to generate a sense of urgency, telling donors they need to get involved because of Republican-leaning super PACs aiming to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to defeat the president.” Though the story distanced itself from the fundraising frenzy by attributing the “sense of urgency” to the Obama camp, nothing in the article challenged the underlying money-always-talks ethos of campaign consultants.

No, I have not been reading Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and taking my political cues from Doctor Pangloss. Cash-on-hand calculations can shape destiny in presidential primaries, such as when former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, once regarded as the most serious rival to Romney, dropped out after losing the Iowa Straw Poll last August. Rick Santorum, in his first interview after bowing to Romney’s inevitability, invoked the political aphorism: “Every presidential campaign ends for the same reason—you run out of money.” And in congressional elections, too, money really shouts; this year, super PAC spending by groups like Karl Rove’s American Crossroads may hand the Republicans a decisive edge.

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.”

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.

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Walter Shapiro just chronicled his ninth presidential campaign. He writes the “Character Sketch” political column for Yahoo News. Follow him on Twitter @WalterShapiroPD.