Free Press Article
Campaign Finances and Negative Ads
For Warrensburg Free Press November 7 issue
The campaign for the 121st District seat likely cost over $100,000. A week before the election, each candidate had raised over $40,000 and substantial additional amounts had been spent by their state party organizations and interest groups. Millions were spent on the campaign for the U.S. Senate. Landfills will overflow with the indestructible slick campaign mailers. Now that the bombardment of political ads is done for a while, the clamor against negative advertising and for campaign finance “reform” will resurface.
Negative campaigning is nothing new. The United States has a long history of personal attacks on leaders and candidates going all the way back to George Washington. Jefferson had to content with rumors about his relationship with Sally Hemmings. Abe Lincoln was called the Ape. Lies and innuendo about candidate positions continue into more recent times, from Lyndon Johnson implying that he wouldn’t increase our involvement in VietNam right up to misrepresentation of Social Security issues. What has changed is the sophistication of the negative campaigns.
The most common method of the negative campaign is to accuse a candidate of favoring an unpopular program or opposing a popular one based on his or her position or vote on a small portion of the program. While the ads are worded so they seldom are outright lies, the implications they leave are clear and are often quite misleading. Nobody rational believes that one party wants to cut Social Security benefits for current retirees or that the other party favors giving domestic terrorists a free hand. Nevertheless, these were the impressions left by the two U.S. Senate campaigns. The pity is that the negative campaigns substitute slogans for thoughtful discourse on the real merits of the competing positions on significant issues.
The question, then, is one of remedy. Those who wish to outlaw negative ads run afoul of the First Amendment, which includes in its guarantees the right to speak freely, if incorrectly, on political issues. That’s why those who wish to control political speech have decided that the best method is to limit the money spent. In Missouri, there are limits on the amount an individual or a political party can contribute directly to a candidate; there are contribution limits for federal candidates, as well. Naturally, those who have a vital interest in the outcome of an election have found ways around the limits. Political parties do direct, “independent,” advertising, which is often the most misleading and scurrilous. Individuals or organizations give money to multiple political action committees, which then contribute to candidates. Interest groups, such as those for or against abortion or gun rights, spend copiously on their own. Money in politics is like the air in a balloon; squeeze it one place and it pops up someplace else.
An oft-proposed solution is so-called “public financing” of campaigns. This solution has certain drawbacks, not the least being that money is taken from people to support a candidate espousing a completely antithetical position. In operation, taxpayer-financed campaigns are set up to shut out minority views, such as those held by the Libertarian and Green parties. Third party candidates cannot qualify for funds unless they show a certain level of support, yet they cannot build that support without funds to promote their positions. Taxpayer-financed campaigns also make it harder to unseat an incumbent politician, since it takes more money to achieve the name recognition the incumbent already owns.
Probably the best solution would be to uncap the limits on individual donations to political candidates. The money flow would shift to the candidates instead of to the outside interests and would allow the voters to hold candidates directly responsible for their own allegations and promises; there would be little room for the excuse “I had nothing to do with that ad.”
Whatever “reforms” may be adopted, voters will have to live with expensive campaigns and negative ads. The form of the campaign may change slightly, but the only thing that will stop the negative campaigns would be if those who so campaign aren’t elected. Don’t hold your breath.