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Posted at 1:05 PM ET, 01/14/2011

Yes, the secret money still matters

By Greg Sargent

Via Ben Smith, a new study finds that the influence of outside spending in the 2010 elections may have been substantially overstated:

A new study from the Wesleyan Media Project found that while outside groups spent slightly more on ads in House and Senate races in the 2010 cycle proportionately to the total amount invested in the campaign, their contributions represented only a small increase from 2000.

Despite the heightened attention on independent groups over the course of the campaign, according to the study, candidates and campaign committees actually drove most of the spending. By the time the final campaign ad aired, candidates and parties paid for 85 percent of all ads in Senate races and 88 percent of ads in House races.

"The initial evidence suggests that while interest groups were aggressive players in the air war, their impact may not have been as negative or as large as initially predicted," writes Michael Franz, the study's author and an associate professor of government and legal studies at Bowdoin College.

In case anyone seizes on this to say that Democrats were full of it for sounding the alarm about this spending, let's set the record straight. During the 2010 cycle there were two separate and distinct arguments being made:

1) The first argument from Dems was largely political, in part to fire up their base and juice fundraising: The heavy spending of outside groups was unfairly tilting the playing field in a big way towards Republicans. That very well may have been overstated, though even if that spending was not quite as substantial as we thought, it forced the Dem party committees to shift money around in ways they might not otherwise have, so it also had an impact in that sense.

2) The second argument: The problem was not the outside spending itself, but that the sources of the money were being kept secret. This argument also had a political component: The goal was to portray the GOP as stooges of special interests with a secret and nefarious agenda. But at bottom it was more of a good-government case: Voters have the right to know who's paying for ads that are trying to persuade them who to choose to represent them.

The validity of this argument is not undercut in any way by the claim that the outside money constituted a smaller percentage of overall spending than previously thought. Secret money in politics is wrong and corrupts our democracy, no matter how much of it is spent. This will soon be relevant all over again, since outside interests may well spend even more anonymous money in the 2012 cycle than they did last time around. This remains a very important issue.

So, yes, the secret money still matters.

By Greg Sargent  | January 14, 2011; 1:05 PM ET
Categories:  2010 elections, 2012, Campaign finance  
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Here is a good digest of the pay to play rules, the history of corporate "free" speech, now no one has to know whose money is in that bag.

It is no mystery why the RNC is in debt, the money went to the unlimited anonymous donation "third party" groups, Rove and Gillespie's in particular.

Posted by: shrink2 | January 14, 2011 1:13 PM | Report abuse

Greg sure is defensive today!

Posted by: sbj3 | January 14, 2011 1:14 PM | Report abuse

sbj3, just wait until Obama takes in another $100 million in secret donations. IOKIYAD

Posted by: clawrence12 | January 14, 2011 1:18 PM | Report abuse

I hear Soros has 2 billion to flush into the 2012.

Posted by: mikefromArlington | January 14, 2011 1:21 PM | Report abuse

@claw: Remember the other day the big lib argument was: "If heated rhetoric didn't cause anything then why are conservatives so defensive?"

At least Greg is admitting that "Democrats were full of it" regarding argument 1...

Posted by: sbj3 | January 14, 2011 1:23 PM | Report abuse

sbj, I don't think I went as far as to say they were full of it. we don't know what the impact of that money was. it forced the party committees to shift cash around in ways that they may not have

Posted by: Greg Sargent | January 14, 2011 1:30 PM | Report abuse

Greg, it forced parties to shift cash around because they did not get the cash they would otherwise have. The big money is going incognito. Last year was just the beginning.

People who donate to parties will be little donors and people who want their names associated with the donation, like pols giving donations to each other, attracting attention to themselves. But Target sure taught the corporate world its lesson, all anonymous all the time for corporate $$ from now on.

Posted by: shrink2 | January 14, 2011 1:35 PM | Report abuse

I work with chemical dependency counselors daily. If there is one aspect of human behavior these folks understand thoroughly, it is denial.

And what we have here, from Mr Sargent, is what those counselors would call "intellectual denial". That is a very cleverly woven fabric of explanations for poor behavior that all mean the same thing: We don't have a problem, we're fine. Everything is OK.

What Mr Sargent seeks to do is deny the simple fact that the American voters rejected his political positions last November.

the "money" is sooooo very important because if Mr Sargent can convince himself, and his camp followers, that it was "the money" that caused the shellacking then he can remain in his little bubble of well being and never have to face the hard truths of the election.

Notice how Mr Sargent never seems to mention the biggest "outside" contributor of them all: AFSCME. Hello Mr Sargent, we KNOW where AFSCME's money came from, US. And we know why AFSCME spent it. When I look off into the distant misty future for my country, I see Greece. No thanks.

the entire whine o gram about the "secret money" is yet another form of sophisticated, intellectual denial. Here's Mr Sargent's approach: "This "secret money" was the real reason that the president and his sycophants were shellacked, not the fact that Americans don't approve of liberalism, or even that liberalism failed."

It is just amazing to watch. Perhaps it would be best if we didn't share this sense that the liberals are in denial. As long as they stay there the chances that they can mount an effective campaign in 2012 remain slim. Beating them at voting booth is the quickest way to defang their pernicious politics.

Posted by: skipsailing28 | January 14, 2011 1:38 PM | Report abuse

Greg, you still haven't condemned Obama for the fact that only $378 million (out of $745 million he raised in 2008) was fully disclosed.

Why is that "secret money" ok?

Posted by: clawrence12 | January 14, 2011 1:38 PM | Report abuse

In case readers aren't clicking through:

"Over the course of the campaign, the report found, Democratic committees and candidates outspent their GOP foes $159 million to $112 million – more than enough to compensate for the money outside GOP-leaning groups contributed toward airtime.

“If anything, pro-Republican groups helped keep Republican challengers competitive with the incumbent Democratic class,” the report says."

Read more:

Posted by: sbj3 | January 14, 2011 1:41 PM | Report abuse

But Target sure taught the corporate world its lesson, all anonymous all the time for corporate $$ from now on.

Posted by: shrink2

Actually, private interest groups taught the corporate world its lesson. I'm not going to blame one side for that, because it could have easily been a right leaning group. Both are equally good at screaming how hurt they are by a corporation donating money to the other side. But organizing a boycott against store because they donated money isn't going to encourage openess is it?

Posted by: Bailers | January 14, 2011 1:44 PM | Report abuse

"But organizing a boycott against store because they donated money isn't going to encourage openess is it?"

Absolutely not. After many weeks of careful study and debate, unlimited, anonymous free corporate political speech (using money as a proxy) was written right into the First Amendment by the framers of the Constitution, we all get that.

But since that never happened, courts decided that corporations have rights akin to American citizens if those rights are an essential aspect of the existence of a corporate entity (to hold debt, make contracts, etc.).

More recently, pouring anonymous money into political campaigns became essential to corporate (yes also AFSCME and SEIU) survival. So presto, the First Amendment was construed to confer on 501(c) entities the right to unlimited anonymous political donations. It is all about "free" speech.

Posted by: shrink2 | January 14, 2011 1:59 PM | Report abuse


Bruce Reed: Another Clinton centrist joins Obama White House

When do Democrats intend to ask Obama what he has in mind? After he announces the deals with the GOP to cut Social Security and corporate taxes?

Posted by: wbgonne | January 14, 2011 2:12 PM | Report abuse

I work with chemical dependency counselors daily. If there is one aspect of human behavior these folks understand thoroughly, it is denial.

Posted by: skipsailing28 | January 14, 2011 1:38 PM

Glad to hear that you are undergoing daily treatment, and that at least you have heard what they have been saying to you. Looks like you still are in the first stage, and will have a long recovery time.

What ever you do, never stop attending the daily sessions, because you have not shown any improvement.

Now; instead of misdirecting the wise words of your counselors; apply them to yourself, as they intend you to do.

Persevere until you are cured.

Posted by: Liam-still | January 14, 2011 2:12 PM | Report abuse

All, new poll finds that more support expanding the health law than support repealing it:

Posted by: Greg Sargent | January 14, 2011 2:14 PM | Report abuse

"Persevere until you are cured."

Addicts are said never to be cured, but they can recover their whole lives.

Posted by: shrink2 | January 14, 2011 2:22 PM | Report abuse

sbj3 and skipsailing, take a look at the study (link above). They don't prove that 2010 was the "most negative campaign" since they even admit to having no data for 2006 and considered no ads run on cable. What about all the data before 2000?! Newt taking over the House in 1994 was pretty bad, as was 1996. 1968 was the worst in my lifetime. Before that, LBJ's "Daisy" ad, and go back to Andrew Jackson or Thomas Jefferson if you want to see nasty campaigns.

Posted by: clawrence12 | January 14, 2011 2:37 PM | Report abuse

I wrote Obama and the Democrats off on campaign finance reform after he went back on his pledge in the 2008 campaign to accept federal matching funds and campaign spending limits in the general election if the Republican general election candidate (i.e. McCain) did.

Having said that, I'm all for disclosure of the sources of political ads, but I believe that the current limitations on donations to individual candidates and political parties are causing more problems than they are solving. The more that the government tries to regulate who can give what to whom, the more it pushes campaign money towards more obscure groups. As long as the federal government has the role in the national economy that it does, there will always be huge amounts of money in politics seeking to influence the outcome of federal elections.

Posted by: jnc4p | January 14, 2011 2:38 PM | Report abuse

glad to see you are still a bigot Liam

Posted by: skipsailing28 | January 14, 2011 3:19 PM | Report abuse

Politico is reporting that Obama has started efforts to raise over $1 billion this time around:

Posted by: clawrence12 | January 14, 2011 3:48 PM | Report abuse

glad to see you are still a bigot Liam

Posted by: skipsailing28 | January 14, 2011 3:19 PM

See, that is why you need to stay in treatment, until you stop manifesting such symptoms of delusional paranoia.

Posted by: Liam-still | January 14, 2011 4:59 PM | Report abuse

Um the democrats got more money from these sources, even this year, than the other party did

you are being deceived.


Posted by: RainForestRising | January 14, 2011 6:29 PM | Report abuse

Don't give up and give in, skip, and remember, CA does work!

But if you do give in and hit the glass dick, it's OK, just try not to repeat it.

Posted by: caothien9 | January 15, 2011 5:25 AM | Report abuse


Posted by: shrink2 | January 15, 2011 5:21 PM | Report abuse

**|hi:that is not|**

Posted by: shrink2 | January 15, 2011 5:26 PM | Report abuse

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