Why the problem with campaign finance isn't 'finance' but 'campaign'

We hear a lot about the corrupting influence of money in politics, and in certain cases that may be true. To the extent this is a problem, the answer we usually hear is to regulate the amount of money people can give. It would be truly ironic if, instead, the change that was needed -- and perhaps adopted -- was self-restraint in soliciting money by candidates who came to realize all their spending was getting them nowhere.

If any candidate (or donor) wants to know whether the spending is really ineffective, I couldn't recommend more highly this article by The Atlantic's Molly Ball about the house of cards political consultants have built over the past few decades:

"But all was not well at the Pollies (as the industry's annual conference, held in Puerto Rico this past April, is called). A confab intended to be a sun-soaked junket was instead shadowed by the island's debt crisis, the Zika virus, and a forecast of stormy weather throughout the week. It was almost too perfect a metaphor: Despite all the money pouring into political consulting, a palpable sense of unease looms over the profession. The consultants may be getting rich, but recent events suggest they don't have any idea what they're doing."

This isn't totally new; Republican activists in particular have been grumbling for years about how ineffectual and self-dealing the consultant class can be. It sure isn't just about the rise of Donald Trump, who largely avoided the industry and survived hundreds of millions of dollars of its spending on behalf of his GOP opponents. Yes, there is an extended section about Jeb Bush's super PAC, Right to Rise, and its head, Mike Murphy, which ought to make Bush donors' blood boil. But Bush wasn't the only one whose consultants looked somewhat silly this year. Consider, even in a winning effort, Hillary Clinton's team:

"Hillary Clinton's push for the Democratic nomination was nearly derailed by a candidate whose campaign manager was a comic-book-store owner with no experience in elections outside of Vermont. And while Clinton's staff-heavy operation ultimately prevailed, her worst showings came in caucuses -- the sort of contests where on-the-ground organizing is supposed to make the biggest difference. Clinton's campaign manager, Robby Mook, is a field-organizing specialist."

The point here isn't that consultants and the money they spend can't be effective. It's that no one really knows if, when or how they're effective. Jeb lost because, as a campaign-finance attorney told Ball, his campaign was "trying to sell New Coke -- a product people didn't want to buy." Hillary won because, while a sizable minority within the Democratic Party seems ready to lurch toward socialism, they weren't a majority. (One of the great unanswered questions of this year's election, destined to be held over for four to eight years, is whether they would have made for a plurality if the Democratic field this year had been anywhere near as large as the GOP's.)

But the difference between winning and losing almost certainly wasn't in the money or even the strategy. Ball's article is replete with examples of well-funded failures not just in this presidential race but in other races across the nation in recent years. (A caveat: Most of what's discussed here and in Ball's piece is about national races, or at least federal-level races, such as Senate contests. State and local elections are somewhat different, though not completely so: There have been some high-dollar clunkers in those races, too.)

Old-school tactics such as TV advertising and direct mail lack strong evidence that they sway voters beyond the near term (i.e., the effect of a TV ad in September is likely to disappear long before a viewer casts a vote). But Ball also addresses the Big Data and high-tech campaigns, such as Barack Obama's operations in 2008 and 2012:

"The one campaign tactic that's consistently been found to be effective in turning out voters is field organizing -- being present on the ground in a community and campaigning door-to-door. But the effects are small: For all the hype about Obama's ground game in 2012, it likely netted him less than a point in the states where it was most active. Only a single state, Florida, was won or lost by that small a margin. 'If you asked me, "Where's the scientific evidence of what's adding value to a campaign?," I'd say field organizing,' Nyhan said. 'But the campaign consultants who are most famous are the strategists, especially the ones who focus on TV. And that's where the evidence of the effectiveness of anything that people do in campaigns is the most limited.'"

I've barely scratched the surface here of Ball's piece, which also excoriates the very lucrative campaign run on Ben Carson's behalf. If you're interested in this kind of inside baseball, as I am, you should read the whole thing .

But if you aren't, here's the takeaway: Candidates are best-positioned to know they are, broadly speaking, being ill-served by consultants. The time they spend on fund raising might be better spent on meeting with voters, and certainly would be more useful honing their policy positions (ask Scott Walker if he wishes he'd re-directed even a few hours of calling donors toward, say, understanding what he really wanted to say about illegal immigration).

And from a donor's perspective, giving to a candidate is kind of like buying a lottery ticket: There might be something in it for you, but there's an even better chance you'll never see a dime of return. If you're truly interested in making certain changes in this country, perhaps you should be thinking about ways to shape the culture that shapes voters' points of view, or to develop and promote and defend specific ideas that politicians could adopt. Giving someone another dollar to spend on another ad that doesn't move the needle -- except in certain folks' bank accounts -- is way down the list of effectiveness.

Understanding all that is the kind of campaign-finance reform we really need.