Lately, there’s been a lot of interest in Borrell’s political ad spending report, which we released in February. Many reporters we’ve talked seem staggered by the sheer size of political ad spending — a projected $4.2 billion between last January and this November. And that’s just the advertising cost. If the rest of political spending to support this year’s elections is thrown in — renting halls, travel expenses, buttons and banners, and that shadowy “walkin’ around money” in every advance man’s briefcase — the total rises to almost $8 billion. In total, that amounts to more than $34 for every eligible voter. If current projections hold, this year’s elections, from local to congressional, will be the most expensive in our history.
As the old saying goes, “All politics are local.” That’s not the case with political advertising. Right now, about a quarter of every dollar spent comes from outside local markets, and the demand for and use of national money grows every year, and ratchets up every cycle. The political parties themselves support vetted House and Senate candidates with national funding, and they are far from alone. Political Action Committees of all stripes are eager to help out in races where the right winner can help push their agendas. Last year’s Supreme Court ruling erased limits that had limited overt corporate political contributions. With those impediments erased, the infusion of their newly legal money is projected to increase this year’s spending by a healthy ten percent.
When you think of corporate political contributions, you probably envision seven-figure checks and giant multi-national corporations. Some probably involve such Hollywood scenery, but the practice doesn’t stop at the higher offices. There are plenty of local businesses that would like a favorable zoning ruling, a new sign ordinance, or amended street parking rules. Now unfettered, corporate money can be expected to flow to every level of politics.
Well, what’s wrong with having more money in politics? After all, it’s just a matter of free speech. According to the numbers, the problem is very basic. As the cost of one level of election goes up, it drags the cost of more local elections up with it. A quarter-century ago, when I was a reporter covering local and county elections for a small Arizona newspaper, the biggest election expense most for the candidates I interviewed was the cost of the signs that adorned lawns and utility poles. That’s not the case any longer. Nowadays, even city council candidates run TV spots. Spending this year on local elections will reach $1.6 billion – more than $7 per eligible voter.
That means that a city council election in a mid-sized town can cost a successful candidate more than $350,000. That is a lot of money, and it’s roughly twice what it was just a decade ago. It is a level of spending that exceeds what most of us have in the bank most of our lives, outstrips the full cost of the average American home, and is several times the level of the average U.S. household’s annual income. Fundraising to achieve this amount requires more than a few people working phones, or working a crowd at a rally. It needs professional help — and that, by itself, costs money. A candidate who wants to win will either have to be personally wealthy or have access to someone who can spare that level of cash. The bottom line: rapidly increasing political spending levels signal the end of successful grass-roots politics. From now on, only those with access to large sums of money will be able to compete successfully for even local political office.
We foresee local elections in 2011 costing even more than those in 2006, which was a year with congressional contests. Spending during 2012 will be 20 percent higher than this year — over $40 per eligible voter.