Was Unlimited Cash Over-Hyped In Election 2012?

The 2012 election was the first since the Supreme Court's ruling on Citizens United and the most expensive in U.S. history. But not much changed. Host Michel Martin discusses the impact of unlimited cash with Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, with the election now over President Obama and members of Congress are getting no end of free advice about how they should spend the next four years. So today and tomorrow, we'll talk about that with people we are calling the loyal opposition. Today, we speak with one of Mr. Obama's former advisors, Van Jones, and we'll ask him what progressives want to see in the next four years.

And tomorrow, we'll look at the Tea Party agenda. But first, we want to talk more about the mechanics of the 2012 election - the first since the Supreme Court's decision on Citizens United. That ruling allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited funds on elections and sure enough, it became the most expensive election in American history.

We wondered what that meant for 2012 and what it might mean for the future. So for some insights we've called upon Kathleen Hall Jamieson. She is the director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. She's been keeping a close watch on the money trail, and she's with us now. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Good to be with you.

MARTIN: So Professor, I'm going to ask you to grade yourself. When the decision was first announced, what did you expect would happen? And I wanted to ask was there anything about the election that surprised you?

JAMIESON: I expected that the amount of money that would come into the system would be much, much higher than in past years, that the outside groups would probably be able to outspend the candidates. And that is exactly what happened. I also expected that we were going to have an increase in the level of deception as a result because the further you get away from the candidates, the greater the likelihood that the content is deceptive.

What I didn't see coming was the C4 groups - the groups that organized under a provision in the tax code which meant they didn't have to disclose their donors.

MARTIN: It's estimated, you know, to your point that the Obama and Romney campaigns, along with national party committees, raised about a billion dollars each, that outside money from superPACs and other groups also put in more than a billion dollars.

But, you know, it's interesting that in the days since then a lot of the discussion has been about whether that money actually changed anything. If you look at the fact that the president has been re-elected for a second term, Democrats have held onto the Senate, Republicans still have the majority in the House of Representatives. You know, The New York Times' heading talking about the headline in the piece where they wrote about all this was that "Little to Show for Cash Flood by Big Donors."

So now some are saying did it really change anything?

JAMIESON: If we go back and look at the early summer, late spring and early summer period in which the Obama campaign was building on the attacks against Mitt Romney that had been levied by the Republicans in the primaries, had the independent expenditure groups not come in with a tax on President Obama, the race might have been effectively over much earlier than it was.

It's during that key period in which Romney is being defined by the Obama advertising and Romney isn't on the ground responding. And so you could argue that the race stayed close when it might've opened up more in part because money came into the system.

MARTIN: Well, that's one of the points that Karl Rove is making. He's one of the top Republican strategists. He helped raise a lot of this outside money and he's been saying that the race would not have been as close as it was.

JAMIESON: And I believe we've got some history that speaks to this. In 2004, when the independent money was coming in from the left rather than the right, at the point at which John Kerry became the putative nominee in mid-March or so, the Bush campaign came in with a lot of advertising trying to essentially end the race early by defining John Kerry.

And it was money that came in from the left that equalized that playing field. We were doing a rolling cross-sectional survey at that time and we could see the effect of that counter-balancing money, which is why I think on this point at least Karl Rove may have a point.

MARTIN: Well, can I ask you to offer an opinion about this, though, in terms of whether this is good policy. Because the argument has been made that, you know, money is speech and that at the end of the day that the only way - the way to address speech is with more speech. So the argument is that it cancels itself out, that the big money from the right, wealthy donors or by, you know, corporate groups is balanced out eventually by money from the left.

You know, people who agree with, you know, their point of view and the unions and so forth. Do you think that that's true? And do you have an opinion about whether that's good for political discourse or not?

JAMIESON: Well, first, an unlevel playing field is not good because you want whatever voices are there to have an equal amount of access to an audience. I don't like the amount of money in the system but I would like it a lot less - I would dislike it a lot more, I would like it a lot less - if there were real imbalances.

And we were able to see the impact of imbalances in 2008. In 2008, the Obama campaign had the advantage, not just by some small percentage. Some media markets the Obama campaign was outspending McCain four and five to one. And we were doing a rolling cross-sectional survey at the time and were able to see the impact on vote choice that was a function of that difference in spending.

Now, it doesn't mean that President Obama became President Obama because of the spending difference, but we could see the impact of the imbalance. And so this year, to the extent that at key points the playing field was leveled by conservative money, would suggest that it had some kind of a positive impact in terms of keeping the race going, not ending it prematurely.

MARTIN: We're talking about the impact of unlimited outside funding in the 2012 elections. Our guest is Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. You said one other thing when we began our conversation that I want to pick up on, is that you feel, though, that a lot of this outside money does enhance the ability of groups to put on distorted messages, or false messages, or deceptive messages. Did I get that right?

JAMIESON: Yes. It has been historically true, and this goes back to the 1970s when we first saw the emergence of PACs, that to the extent that money is distanced from the candidate by being cloaked in the anonymity of a group or the name of a group with donors not necessarily visibly tied to the message, that the deceptive level of the messages goes up.

And that's been true in every year since to the extent that the message is more anonymous or more pseudonymous it tends to be more deceptive. And we were tracking this year through early May looking at the non-disclosed money, the C4 money, comparing it to the disclosed money, the third-party superPAC money, for example. Finding a higher level of deception behind the non-disclosed monies' content.

That equalized out, however, in May, June, July as the conservatives switched their strategy to one in which they were expressing disappointment with President Obama and not making as many factual claims. Even at that point, however, the third-party money including the C4 non-disclosed money had one out of four ads containing a clear-cut deception.

MARTIN: Well, see, and I don't know the ad that we want to play now is one of the ads that you were thinking about, but there certainly was a sense, I think, you know, if you ask most voters, you know, by the end of it they just wanted to kind of cover their ears because the tone was very negative in a lot of places. Or it was perceived as very negative. I'm sure that people putting on those ads would just say that they're just telling the truth. But here's an ad that was funded by an outside group. This is funded by American Crossroads. That's the superPAC that Karl Rove is involved with. I'll just play it for you.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I don't think Obama's on the side of small business.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The taxes, the regulations, health care issues.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: He spent trillions of dollars. And what do we have to show for it?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: My kids are in debt now.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Obama's policies are the problem.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: There's no help for middle America. Not for me. I don't think I'll be able to survive four more years of this.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: American Crossroads is responsible for the content of this advertising.

MARTIN: What do you think of that? I mean, I'm sure people in swing states heard an awful lot of this kind of thing. I don't know if this kind of crosses the line for you in terms of deception. And it's predictive. It's not saying this thing happened in the past, but they're saying what's going to happen in the future and, you know, that's somebody's opinion.

But what about that? That sense that because there was so much money there were many more negative messages and that just turned people off. What's your take on that?

JAMIESON: That's the second thing that happens when you bring large amounts of third-party money into the system. The amount of attack goes up. And attack isn't necessarily bad. It can be the basis for distinguishing one candidate from another, but the important thing is that when attack goes up to a level at which it's crowding out advocacy, you don't know what you're voting for. And one of the reasons that this was not a good election is the level of attack on both sides was very high, higher than the historical norm by a lot.

And, as a result, people have walked away from this election knowing why they were voting against somebody, but not knowing why they were voting for someone. Fortunately, with the debates, we were able to see an increase in accurate knowledge about candidates' issue positions, something that was largely impossible to learn from much of the advertising.

MARTIN: So finally, before we let you go, I want to spend the couple of minutes that we have left hearing about what you hope would happen in the future and what you think will happen in the future, because over the course of the election we heard a lot, particularly from progressives, about the need to change or somehow address the circumstance created by the Citizens United decision, as we've talked about, that the ability of outside groups that bring in so much money and to have it be largely unregulated.

But, now, when you see a situation where not much seems to have changed in terms of at least the outcome, I wonder if it takes some pressure off the drive to change that circumstance. So, talk about that.

JAMIESON: Well, first, as we look at the details of this election, we actually find that money did some things that we are not now seeing. For example, the Service Employees Union backed a lot of candidates that won. The League of Conservation Voters, with a coalition of environmental groups, was very successful in close races and we may find, once we look carefully at it, that it helped to tip the balance in the argument over the environment in those specific races.

So, when we get down to Senate and House, we may see a story in which money actually did matter in affecting the electoral outcome. So I wouldn't necessarily ring the bell on that conclusion yet that says money basically gave us a status quo we wouldn't otherwise have had.

What do I hope to see? I hope to see Congress pass a form of disclosure that minimizes the likelihood that we have anonymous money in the system and I expect, if that's passed, the Supreme Court will uphold it, just as Kennedy signaled that in the Citizen United opinion. Justice Scalia signaled it in a CNN statement that he made earlier in the election year. I think disclosure is a small part of solving the problem, not a big part.

I would also like to see us conventionalize a structure in which during general elections candidates delivered speeches to us on the problems facing the nation on a regular basis, back-to-back speeches rotating which candidate speaks first. We didn't talk about climate change during this election. We didn't talk about what either candidate would do to address the so-called fiscal cliff. Those are big lapses. We need to find a way to institutionalize a form of communication in which they do address the central issues that forecast governance. That's a big failure of this election. The advertising didn't. The debates did somewhat, but not to the extent that we needed.

MARTIN: Kathleen Hall Jamieson is the director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. She was kind enough to join us from the studios there.

Professor, thank you so much for speaking with us once again.

JAMIESON: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Coming up, Americans are honoring those who served the nation in uniform. Our next guest tells us why it's important to remember not just the warriors, but also the professionals who help care for them.

JIM SHEELER: I think they're still trying to figure it out. In many ways, they just try and care for each other.

MARTIN: We have the story of a military social worker who made the ultimate sacrifice. That's ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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