A tale of two campaigns: UK elects entire House at half cost of Georgia race
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Complaints about the costs of political campaigns in the United States are nearly as old as the Republic itself. In the contemporary era of polarized politics and closely competitive elections, the stakes appear especially high and help to drive the incredible amounts spent on even local races.

Although the U.S. is not alone in having political polarization and high-stakes elections, there is something truly exceptional about the U.S. case regarding the staggering costs.

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For perspective, consider two recent elections — the national elections in the United Kingdom and the special election for a congressional seat in Georgia.

In the U.K. general election, the outcome would determine the government of a nation of 65 million people

that sits on the United Nations Security Council and controls nuclear weapons and much of the world’s financial services industry. It would also go a long way to determining what Britain’s exit from the European Union will look like, which not only has immediate impact in the U.K. itself, but will have a large impact on the future of geopolitics and the global economy.

Meanwhile, in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia, there was a special election to fill a vacancy in the House of Representatives. Besides the immediate employment of the status of the candidates involved, the national effect of this election was nothing more than symbolic. The outcome will have zero real effect on the balance of political power in Congress, and is highly unlikely to impact legislation or public policy. 

Clearly, one of these elections is of global importance. Thus it makes perfect sense that one election would be hard fought over five months with at least $60 million spent on he campaigns once all sources are reported, while the other would race through seven weeks at the relative pittance of about $30 million.

You can guess by now the Georgia election saw at least double the campaign spending as all of the 650 seats for the U.K. House Of Commons.

Extreme campaign spending is hardly new to U.S. politics.  In 2016, about $6.8 billion was spent on federal level political campaigns across the country. That is roughly 28 times per capita more than the campaign spending in the United Kingdom.  American campaigning is not merely one of our nation’s great growth industries, it is one of our bona fide multi-billion businesses.

But what is society getting for this spending explosion?

It doesn’t lead to higher voter turnout. Our presidential election last year, which dominated news and public discussion for most of the two previous years, drew 54 percent of eligible voters to the polls.  The U.K. general election, called on seven weeks notice, drew 68 percent.

There is also no reason to believe this spending makes American voters better informed about the candidates. Coverage of the U.K. election featured public analyses of the parties’ manifesto promises by scholars and think tanks. The election actually turned on the issue on how the Tories planned to pay for elder care. 

That’s an important issue here too, but you don’t hear much about it from any of our candidates. In Georgia, things reached the point where a SuperPAC freely admitted that its radio ads quoted former President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaSanders, Harris set to criss-cross Iowa Republicans bail on Coffman to invest in Miami seat Five takeaways from the first North Dakota Senate debate MORE out of context.

American campaigns simply do not feature intelligent discussion of public issues. Instead, we have a series of tropes we hear over and over:  “Washington insider”, “not a politician”, “fighting for you”, “big spending liberal”, “true conservative”, “a Nancy Pelosi Democrat”, “a Dick Cheney Republican”, and on and on. 

There is no reason to think this multi-billion industry helps the public at large, but it does give more opportunities for moneyed interests to influence public officials, who in turn have to devote large amounts of time to raising these funds.

In short, the U.S. spends exponentially more money on campaigns than is needed for candidates to get a message out and inform voters, and this extra spending provides zero benefit to the voters who ultimately select our government. The campaign industry, in the extreme form it currently exists, is a tax on the public which is paid to established interests, and the end result is to promote a form of governance that is seriously dysfunctional.

The unnecessary billions spent on American campaigns corrupt our government and divert resources from areas where they could go to better use. Returning sanity to campaign financing would do more than all of the slogan-wielding consultant-backed candidates to drain the actual swamp that is drowning our government.  

Whet Smith is an attorney and former GOP nominee for the Texas state assembly. Mark J. Rozell is dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University where he holds the Ruth D. and John T. Hazel chair in public policy.


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