TV at heart of multi-billion-dollar US election industry
If you are a voter angry about money controlling politics, a CEO upset about the cost of getting your voice heard, or a politician sick of parroting the same fund-raising spiel, then direct some of your ire at William Benton.
Facing an uphill struggle against George W. Bush’s grandfather in the 1950 Connecticut Senate race, “Bill” Benton mined his advertising background for ideas about how to prevail and came up with a product that would redefine elections and politics itself.
The long-time ad man created what is thought to be the first election campaign spot for television. It helped him win out at the ballot box — albeit by a slender margin — and the rest is history.
Not since president Harry Truman rode the railways to reelection in 1948 has a politician tried to simply handshake or doorstep their way to power.
With less that a month before the most expensive US congressional and gubernatorial elections in history, his legacy looms large.
In the last 60 years paying for advertising time has become the prevailing issue for anybody seeking elected office in the United Stares.
“The style of campaigning has moved from a one-on-one type of campaign, door knocking, walking wards and precincts, to one which is a lot more media-based,” said Sean Kelly, a politics professor at California State University.
Faced with vast distances and limited time, television ads are a seductive way of doing business in the United States.
But they also make elections prohibitively expensive.
“Since you have to advertise and advertising is expensive, you have to raise more money,” said Kelly.
In terms of total dollars spent the 2010 midterms are already a blockbuster.
The Center for Responsive Politics estimates about 3.4 billion dollars has been spent so far, double the level seen in 1998.
TV advertising is thought to make up around a third of those costs, but another 40 percent is spent just getting that funding, according to James Snyder, a professor of governance at Harvard University.
That means candidates have to spend ever-more time calling, mailing, and dining donors, or, in troubled economic times, they have to pay for the ads themselves.
In 2010 the massive need for cash during an economic downturn has spurred an massive influx of cash-rich candidates.
In California, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman has spent more than 140 million dollars of her own money in an attempt to win the state’s governor race, a record for self-funders.
“What you see is a a disturbing trend toward millionaires becoming candidates,” said Kelly, “both parties… go out looking for these sorts of candidates because they know that they are not going to have to raise a ton of money for them.”
The rub is that many of these candidates have to spend inordinate proportions of their cash building name recognition, establishing a “brand” even among party supporters and less on tackling the issues.
“It creates a real problem” of substance according to Kelly, “it looks more and more like traditional advertising.”
Meanwhile for candidates unable to meet the cost of elections themselves, large donors become ever more important.
A US Supreme Court ruling that allows corporations, unions and non-profit groups to spend unlimited amounts advocating for or against politicians could deepen that trend further, with unnamed firms expected to fund hundreds of million dollars on advertising.
Benton’s legacy seems likely to live on.
Source: AFP American Edition