The Super PAC Bubble

by evanmcmurry

Somewhere in Politico‘s office is a piece entitled, “Super PACs Return Democracy To Its Rightful Owners” that was scrapped at the last minute for “The Billion Dollar Bust.” (As one political pundit would put it…)

The post-election rosy-eyed view from Democrats of men like Karl Rove and Sheldon Adelson plunging hundreds of millions of dollars into a disaster for Republicans is that Citizens United ended up having no discernible impact on the election; almost none of the right’s PAC-favored candidates won, meaning the ability for a small cabal of rich investors to sway an election turned out to be a paper tiger. But Politico‘s piece makes short work of that:

The high-dollar barrage spurred once wary Democrats to launch their own big money machine — which ended up nearly matching the GOP’s overall spending and actually put more ads on the air than the Republicans.

In other words, Citizens United had no impact on the outcome of the election, which is different from saying that Republicans showed up and dumped money into a hole; they failed only because Democrat’s ability to raise funds—and spend them efficaciously—was wildly underestimated. This is still a victory for the world of Super PACs, in which money rules politics, if not an even bigger one; if anything, it shackles Democrats all the more to an election model that requires billions of dollars to be competitive.

This ends where everything these days ends: a bubble, in which a product becomes in the market unmoored from its actual value. It’s pretty much the electoral equivalent of the slugger bubble going on in baseball: despite every available metric that posits a diminishing limit to the production of hitters like Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford and Alex Rodriguez, ballclubs continue to hugely overpay for them, sometimes twice. Now we have an election model in which it’s the spending of money, not the power gained from that money, that matters. We got an inkling of this tail-wagging-the-dog in the Romney campaign’s foray into Pennsylvania, which Sasca Issenberg suggests was due to neither confidence nor desperation but a surfeit of funds:

Late moves by Romney and his allies to get on TV here seem like they may be evidence of what I think of as supply-side campaigning. Available spending opportunities narrow in the final days of a campaign: Several weeks before election day is too late to open and equip field offices, hire and train staff. A week out it is too late to print new direct mail and get it into the system. One reason robocalls remain persistent in our political culture, even though there’s good evidence they’re ineffective, is that when you get to the final weekend there’s nothing else to spend money on.

So robocalls don’t really work, and Pennsylvania isn’t really competitive, but hey, you’ve got money to spend. Now apply that logic to Super PACs, which are even less bound by electoral logic and more driven by the whims of their rich donors, and you have all the ingredients necessary to create an eternal escalation of funds even as the returns from the funds diminish. Supposedly this is all an example of The Market Working, but I’ll be damned if I can figure out how.

The initial fear of Citizens United was that it would hand control of elections to those who could spend billions of dollars. I don’t think anybody thought that it would have little impact on the control of elections, but that we would spend the billions anyway. Routing the billionaires on Tuesday doesn’t make me worry about Citizens United any less.