Money for Nothing

Now that the 2012 elections are in our rear-view mirror, I’ve been thinking a lot about the complex nature of campaign finance. Some of us—almost entirely in the swing states—made out like crazy this year, especially in states like Wisconsin where there were hotly-contested state and local races.

Others of us hardly saw anything, inasmuch as we had the bad luck of owning and operating radio stations in states that were not in play.

In fact, living as I do in a blue state, judging by the deafening silence, I might never known that national elections were being conducted at all.

It is neither my place nor the beat of this newsletter to engage in a debate over whether the Electoral College is the best way to determine presidential races, but I will say that I regret the fact that campaign strategists have become so, well, strategic that they focus solely on the four or five states that seem to be disproportionately influential in the election process.

Although the fact that a handful of states determine elections has been known for quite some time—arguably, for over 200 years—national campaigns have always at least pretended that they covet each and every vote, in each and every state. This year marks a culmination of the trend toward greater and greater marketing efficiency—meaning if you are in a blue or red state, you are taken for granted and basically ignored.

It has been estimated that this year about $4.5 billion was spent on political campaigns in this country. About half of that went into advertising, overwhelmingly in electronic media, overwhelmingly (alas) in television. And that’s money our nation will never see again.

Stay with me on this one; I think you’ll agree with my premise, even though it kind of threatens that lovely biannual windfall to which we’ve all become accustomed—and on which, quite frankly, we rely.

My premise is this: We, as purveyors and channels of advertising, are proud of the fact that the advertising we facilitate builds strong, successful businesses. We speak of advertising as an investment that produces great returns, and we have reams of testimonials from businesses that we have helped. (You do have testimonials, don’t you?)

And then there’s political advertising, which has about as much long-term affect on the public good as a weekend in Vegas. Furthermore, it is negative and nasty, and our airwaves are clogged with pure venom, which undermines everything we are trying to do and to be in our communities.

Of course, we have no choice but to carry whatever hate-filled bile the candidates choose to throw at us in the name of free speech. But maybe—just maybe—this election will prompt a rethinking about that strategy. In state after state, and in the case of the national races as well, for the first time in a long time, the biggest war chests did not win elections.

I am not foolish enough to advocate true campaign finance reform—which would level the playing field at the very least—I am wrestling with the fact that biased, racist, alarmist messages overwhelm our airwaves once every two years and we are powerless to do anything about it. In all other cases, we can use our discretion, tempered by our knowledge of the community, to reject advertising that we deem extreme in any direction.

The irony is, we are held responsible, and subject to punishment, for allowing to be broadcast some of the very things that we are forced to broadcast during the political season. All I’m saying is, it would be nice if the privilege of that responsibility were returned to us.