This campaign season has made it clearer than ever that in presidential elections, you simply can’t draw a straight line between the most money and the most votes. Especially when most of the dough is spent on television ads, which have been proven to be ineffective. So what is the money really for?
In Harper's Magazine earlier this year, Washington editor Andrew Cockburn explained how the ads really serve to line the pockets of campaign consultants. He talks to Brooke about the commissions that come from broadcasters, how Super PACs have made the problem worse, and why television media are complicit in the 'election-industrial complex'.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So if the poll is, say, the adjustable wrench in the prognosticator’s toolbox, the hammer, no, the nails, hell, the lead pipe is money.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: It is a fact that the candidate who raises the most money often wins in American politics.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Ted Cruz could win not just Texas but some other southern states. He has a lot of money. He’s probably the best-funded candidate, except for Trump who his own money.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Jeb Bush is amassing an unprecedented campaign war chest. In the first six months of the year, Bush and his allied super PAC, Right to Rise USA, raised more than $114 million.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It was the money that led many pundits to prematurely award Jeb Bush the win. But now it's clearer than ever that in presidential elections you simply can't draw a straight line between the most money and the most votes, especially when that money is spent, as it mostly is, on ads. It’s part of what Andrew Cockburn in the April Harper's Magazine called “the election industrial complex” in which campaign spending is designed less to elect the candidate than to enrich the campaign consultant class. Mainly, Cockburn notes, they are enriched through the purchase of TV ads, which generally don't work.
ANDREW COCKBURN: That should be the reaction of anyone because
they‘re, actually, very hokey. They look like what they are, which is slapped together in a day or so in some sort of small studio and flung on the air.
MAN: The political class and their pundit buddies say impossible. He’s too outside the box.
CHILD: People really like Dad. During the next few weeks you’ll be seeing a lot of commercials from us.
GOVERNOR PAT QUINN: When I became governor, state government needed to be cut, just like my lawn, so I got to work.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One of the things in your article that really struck me is that your gut level instinct that they couldn’t possibly work was borne out.
ANDREW COCKBURN: That’s right. It's very intensively studied. The effect, at most, is entirely ephemeral. You see an ad on Monday saying so and so is going to make the universe great again. On Tuesday, you're asked by a pollster, what you think of so and so and you think, oh, he’s gonna make the universe great again, and you say, I'm for him. And on Wednesday, you’ve entirely forgotten. The whole effect of that ad has gone away. So these enormous quantities of dollars that are poured into this are almost entirely wasted. I say “almost” ‘cause there are a few narrow spots where perhaps they are worth spending money on. One is when you’ve got a complete unknown and the other is at the very last minute, if the election’s on the Tuesday, if you dump ads on people's eyeballs on Monday, it may have an effect.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what does work?
ANDREW COCKBURN: The ground game or field operations. That’s the sort of fancy professional name for it, but it’s basically going around and talking to people and not just ringing the bell saying, hi, are you voting for Brooke, thank you very much, goodbye. It’s been shown that if you engage people and actually talk to them, the longer, the better, turnout, and presumably turn out for your side, if you’ve chosen your people correctly, shoots up. That's been academically tested now hundreds of times.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How do consultants make money off of ads that they don't make off of a ground game?
ANDREW COCKBURN: Ah, this is the big secret of the [LAUGHS] election-industrial complex. The way it works is this: Brooke Gladstone is running for higher office, okay? I'm the consultant and I say, Brooke, we need to do a big buy in the northern part of the state. It’s going to cost $1 million. So the campaign treasurer and I book time on various TV stations. And the bill comes back and it's $1 million. And the time is bought, the ads go out and the stations send me my commission for having brought them the business.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm.
ANDREW COCKBURN: In the old days, this was a standard 15%.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Wow!
ANDREW COCKBURN: You know, no one noticed, I should say, because they were just writing a check for a million dollars and they were told they’d bought $1 million worth of ads, and the consultants didn’t go out of their way to explain that 15% of that was coming back into their pocket. Then people got a bit wiser and said, well no, 15%, we’re not paying you that, how about 5, 6%, and so forth? And the consultants accepted that, although I've been told - I couldn't document this – there are all sorts of underhanded ways, unbeknownst to the campaign, where you can jack that up, go as high as 30%, even today.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Election-industrial complex, it’s a takeoff on military-industrial complex.
ANDREW COCKBURN: And you see it very clearly. You know, in the defense case, you know, when money gets pumped into a weapon which fails every test, and complete dog and boondoggle to visible to all concerned but carries on, when 80% or so of the money in the election-industrial complex case gets pumped into something that's self-evidently almost ineffective but enormously profitable for the people who are managing the effort, it's the same thing.
You have to think about what the campaign is for. Is it to find the most efficient and cost-effective way of getting the favored candidate elected or is it to put money, the more the better, in the pockets of the consultants he has retained to advance his cause? It is the primary function of the election-industrial complex is to look after number one, itself.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But what about the ground game? Is there some inherent resistance to the ground game, other than the fact that the consultants don't make a percentage on it?
ANDREW COCKBURN: There’s a couple of objections, including the one you just mentioned - there’s no money in it. It’s kind of hard work. You have start very early. You have to recruit volunteers.
But there’s another problem too, which is the people that you need to do this are, by definition, pretty committed, the people who go around door to door or make all those phone calls. So they are liable to feel a bit more strongly about issues than you do. That could be kind of awkward. You want to keep control of the message. [LAUGHS] If you suddenly had to depend on people who have a slightly different view and a more extreme view of what needs to be done, then you – you are building up a problem for yourself. So I think there’s an instinctive reaction in the machine against going too far.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Volunteers are wildcards?
ANDREW COCKBURN: They’re wildcards. You know, they all – I defy you to find a candidate or a campaign manager who won't tell you, yeah, the ground game, that’s where it’s at, you know, we’re really putting a huge amount of resources into our field operations. That’s the key, getting the people engaged. But then you look at what they spent their money on and it all turns out to be TV all over again.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Let’s talk about the other aspects of this. With the rise of the super PACs, you've got Mr. and Mrs. Billionaire with their vanity candidates. These people weren't all that big on oversight, right? And plus, super PACs don't get any.
ANDREW COCKBURN: Right, that’s the beauty of super PACs. As one consultant said to me, I love super PACs. He said, it’s like living under the golden arches, no need to talk to the candidate, no need to talk to the staff, no need to talk to the voters. Just put up a bunch of TV ads and sit back and let the money roll in because there’s this wonderful legal stipulation about super PACs is that the campaigns aren’t allowed to contact them, the 1% or the 1% of 1%, or whatever it is. They don't know. It’s not their business. If they happen to hear about TV commissions, for instance, they can say, well, that’s a standard deal. You know, of course, this is the way the business operates. Everyone does this, 15% or, pushing it a bit, 25%.
Yes, thank you, Mr. Billionaire. You know, so the consultant class loves super PACs, for just this reason.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, so let's not leave out the media, especially the broadcasters who, in these troubled times, may actually count on campaign spending to keep their stations afloat in the lean years. Do we spy a potential conflict of interest?
ANDREW COCKBURN: [LAUGHS] I think one hits it smack dab on the nose. When I talk about the election-industrial complex, I definitely include the broadcast industry because in a way they’re the major component because that $7 or 8 billion, maybe more, that this election is going to cost, the largest chunk of that will go straight into the pockets of the broadcasters, which is why the broadcasters heartily endorse the whole notion of [LAUGHS] big-money politics and, you know, excessive spending.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, they don’t necessarily endorse it, but I certainly haven't heard reported in any detail about how ineffective television ads are.
ANDREW COCKBURN: You don’t hear that, do you? I can’t think why not.
But when you say they don't endorse it, I mean, they do off camera, so to speak. Les Moonves, the boss of CBS, in 2012 he said super PACs may be bad for the country but they’re certainly good for CBS.
This year, he said, the more they spend, the better it is for us, go Donald!
We’re looking forward to a very exciting political year in 2016. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But it’s interesting ‘cause Donald Trump has spent relatively little on his campaign. Only recently, has he spent much at all on campaign ads. How does Trump figure into the election-industrial complex?
ANDREW COCKBURN: Oh, I think if he hadn’t been there they would have wanted to invent him.
He’s been wonderful for them. He’s a fantastic ratings draw. That’s point one. And point two is, of course, all these stop-Trumpers around the place are dashing to express themselves in the only way they know how, which is by spending millions of dollars on TV ads denouncing him. There’s one called Our Principles, which I know has raised millions and millions of dollars to run stop-Trump ads, financed by the Ricketts family in Chicago, who should know better.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, with cash-rich candidates, like Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, failing so spectacularly, are the donors and campaigns finally going to wise up?
ANDREW COCKBURN: You'd think, but that’s what one could have said after 2012. In fact, Karl Rove raised all these hundreds of millions of dollars and of the people he was trying to get elected, he succeeded once, I mean, one congressman. In fact, the donors were so annoyed, one of them even tried to sue him for fraud. [LAUGHS]
So every once in a while, maybe people will wise up but, you know, this time we’ve got more money than ever pouring in. It’s drilled into all of us that elections come at a high price, and there’s no way ‘round it; you’ve got to guy scads and scads of TV time and shower the American people with mail and take endless polls in hope of just getting them to stagger out to the poll and maybe put a cross against your name.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Last week, you tweeted, Andrew, liberals shouldn't fret about big money controlling elections. The consultants swipe it. Is that the lesson?
ANDREW COCKBURN: I think it is. One of the reasons I wrote this thing was I was getting tired of, you know, people mobilizing to defeat Citizens United and that the problem is the money, which implicitly accepts that money wins. As I’ve tried to explain in this piece, you know, money doesn't win.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So then the real lesson is if voters want to fix the system, then they actually just have to - ?
ANDREW COCKBURN: Be involved. The money is, in a way, designed to shut you out. So yeah, it would be a major effect.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Andrew, thank you very much.
ANDREW COCKBURN: You’re welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Andrew Cockburn is Washington editor for Harper's Magazine. We spoke to him about his piece, “Down the Tube: Television Turnout and the Election-Industrial Complex.”
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, the worst of the worst prognosticators in a little segment we’re calling, “Kristol’s Ball.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] I didn’t know that. This is On the Media.