Ever since the US Supreme Court cast aside federal laws limiting corporate and union influence on election advertising, I've heard the same nightmare scenario. Thanks to the court's decision, critics of the ruling warn, special interests will buy up the airwaves days before an election, filling our heads with ads in support of their cronies. By the time Americans realize they've been suckered, it will be Too Late.
Maybe. But to be honest, I've always kind of felt that's how it worked already -- at least as far as being suckered is concerned. And maybe we shouldn't worry so much about the money spent at the end of a race. Maybe the real problem is money spent at the beginning.
Take the four Democrats running for governor*. Each has filed campaign finance reports covering their fundraising for 2009 today. And the clear winner is Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato.
By year's end, Onorato had $6.5 million on hand -- most of which was raised since he first declared his candidacy. His fellow Allegheny County Democrat, state Auditor General Jack Wagner, starts the year with only a tenth of that: $675,000. Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Hoeffel had a paltry $230,000, whereas Scranton mayor Chris Doherty had less than $100,000.
In other words, Onorato starts the year out with more than six times as much money as his Democratic opponents combined. More than 85 cents of every dollar held by a Democrat is in his coffers.
Meanwhile, actual voters are very much undecided. In December, as Onorato was racking up his millions, a Quinnipiac University poll showed that nearly three-fifths of voters remain undecided about which Democrat they'd prefer. Among those who have a preference, Onorato leads -- but with only 14 percent of the vote. His rivals are all in the single digits.
So as far as voters are concerned, it's anyone's race. But the money has made its choice ... and by doing so, it will most likely pre-empt the voters' ability to pick their favorite down the road. As noted here earlier, there's already talk of Doherty dropping out of the race -- and money is a big reason why. Onorato, meanwhile, is trumpeting his fundraising total to prove his seriousness as a candidate.
By the time the May primary rolls around, Onorato may be the only guy left for Democrats to vote for. Or at least he'll be the only candidate we media types are still taking seriously. (I'll confess to being part of the problem: I think a candidate who can't raise any money is as dubious as a candidate who raises too much.)
Money shapes politics in a variety of ways. Sometimes, yes, it can be used to throw support from one candidate to another. But it also helps determine which candidates we have to choose from in the first place. So try to look on the bright side: Even if the Supreme Court had ruled some other way, our politics would still be in thrall to big spenders. Feel better?
(* Note: this comparison is admittedly imperfect. The Supreme Court ruling was about spending on independent advertising, not direct contributions to the candidates themselves. Those are still prohibited, though at this point it's a little hard to see why the court bothers to make the distinction.)