In the 2016 Presidential campaign, money isn’t what it used to be, and consultants are sad

100dollarbillsThe usual spokespeople for the campaign-industrial complex are saying that Donald Trump’s campaign is “a mess,” “a disaster,” and that he’s not spending enough money on the usual stuff. That strategy, they claim, may be  why he’s going to lose the Presidential election in November. But I wonder if their complaints are based more on self-interest than on reality.

Hillary Clinton is running a nice, tidy, conventional, high-income-high-expenditure campaign. She has a huge campaign treasury to work with. In contrast, Trump is spending very little on staff, offices and advertising. And yet, Trump continues to get in the range of 40% to 45% support in public-opinion polls. In a campaign environment in which, in the view of pundits and media outlets, money essentially equals votes, Hillary is not demolishing Trump. Why? I have a few thoughts:

Trump has figured out that he doesn’t need to spend money in the conventional way. He’s gotten so much free publicity that phone banks, neighborhood offices, advertising and a ground game aren’t needed. His campaign was launched, essentially, by NBC, where he starred on “The Apprentice” for years. NBC promoted the program heavily, and Trump gained name/brand recognition without really trying very hard. Then, of course, when he actually launched his campaign for President, NBC and everyone else fell in love with the ratings they got when Trump said the next outrageous thing. So, who needs ad buys? Trump gets all the free publicity he needs via his reputation, his prolific Twitter account and his uncontrollable mouth. Some estimates put the value of the free publicity he has gotten at $3 billion, so far.

Money isn’t working the same way it once did. Remember 2012? Karl Rove’s Super PAC spent a reported $400 million on Republican candidates, including Mitt Romney—and got almost nothing in return for the investment. A report released by the Sunlight Foundation [which tracks campaign expenditures] concluded that:

Rove’s super PAC, American Crossroads, had a success rate of just 1 percent on $103 million in attack ads — one of the lowest “returns on investment” (ROIs) of any outside spending group in this year’s elections.

… American Crossroads spent heavily, not just on Romney, but on attack ads on behalf of GOP Senate candidates in eight states — thanks to mega contributions from conservative donors like metals magnate Harold Simmons ($19.5 million), Texas homebuilder Bob Perry ($7.5 million) and Omni hotel chief Robert Rowling ($5 million.)

The super donors didn’t get much for their money. Six of the eight GOP Senate candidates that American Crossroads spent money to try to elect – Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin, George Allen in Virginia, Josh Mandel in Ohio, Richard Mourdock in Indiana, Denny Rehberg in Montana and Todd Akin in Missouri – lost their races, along with Romney. The group did, on the other hand, help to elect Deb Fischer in Nebraska and Dean Heller in Nevada.

…A sister group, Crossroads GPS, which operates out of the same offices as American Crossroads but does not disclose its donors, fared little better, netting a return on investment of only 13 percent, according to the Sunlight Foundation report.)

Interestingly, Donald Trump himself seems to have learned a lesson from the 2012 spending debacle, and his low-spending style this year may be the result. . After the election, he tweeted:

Congrats to @KarlRove on blowing $400 million cycle. Every race @CrossroadsGPS ran ads in, the Republicans lost. What a waste of money.

 Similarly, Jeb Bush’s backers in the 2015 primary season bankrolled him with $119 million for the primary election season, making him the presumptive winner, based on conventional campaign math. Their money went down the drain, too. On a local level, here in Missouri, billionaire Rex Sinquefield sank a reported $6.8 million into state primary campaigns for his hand-picked Republican candidates in 2016. Not a single one of his minions won.

I’m hoping that this is a trend. I loved seeing Rove’s [and particularly Sinquefield’s] cynical money games add up to nothing. My fantasy is that, when the money people start realizing that the return on investment is virtually zero, we will begin to see the end of big-money in political campaigns. In their business lives, the mega-donors watch their ROI very closely. When the bottom line is so bad, who wants to invest? How great would it be if campaign investors were the very people who killed the political-money avalanche? That outcome would have the effect of rendering Citizens United moot.

Self-interest is fueling conventional wisdom about campaign spending. I can’t help but think that some of the people who are criticizing Trump’s unconventional ways are the same people and organizations who usually benefit from campaign spending. Mostly, it’s the talking-head consultants we hear from. They’re not getting in on the customary campaign gravy train. They are ignoring the new realities of political campaigning: the influence of social media, the rise of the celebrity candidate, the evidence that money is not buying elections the way it once did. But still, the pundits and consultants of the entrenched campaign-industrial complex  roboticly spout  the same old talking points. In my view, their pronouncements are suspect, because they are so closely linked to their own dwindling bottom lines.

Nevertheless, while I bemoan the way money has been the deciding factor in so many recent elections; and while I take pleasure in seeing megadonors flush their money down the campaign hole, I would absolutely hate to see this year’s lower-dollar candidate [Trump] win this one.