Like It Or Not, Money Talks

Robert Coon on Politics

Like It Or Not, Money Talks
Robert Coon

(Editor's Note: This is an opinion column.)

Earlier this week, Peter Urban of the Stephens Media Group's Washington bureau reported that television advertising in Arkansas' U.S. Senate race between Sen. Mark Pryor (D) and U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton (R) was approaching the $20 million. Given the relentless frequency of political ads in recent months, the total — which includes not only spending by the candidates’ campaigns themselves but also ads by political and issue advocacy groups — really shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who owns a TV.[1] 

Arkansas is one of nine "Toss Up" states that will play a key factor in determining control of the U.S. Senate — stakes apparently high enough to justify an estimated 681,800 television advertisements aired to date nationwide costing more than $282.8 million, according to the Center for Public Integrity.   

Of the $19.5 million spent to date in the Arkansas U.S. Senate race, roughly $5.5 million has come from the two candidates’ campaigns, while the other $14 million has come from third-party organizations. The spending by "outside groups" in this race, as well as in the race for Arkansas governor, has become a lightening rod for critics who decry the practice, even though candidates on both sides of the aisle benefit from it — many of them by roughly equal measure.[2]

But it’s not just the pundits that have taken after spending by outside groups. In a recent debate aired on KATV, Mike Ross, the Democratic candidate for governor, denounced the use of outside money, arguing "if you do not live in the state of Arkansas, you should not be able to contribute to a candidate for governor or any other office in the state of Arkansas." Other candidates, including Republican Leslie Rutledge who is running for attorney general, have taken a different approach, advocating for more transparent reporting requirements for outside groups spending money in the state.

Outside spending has a constitutionally protected [3] role in our electoral process, allowing individuals, corporations, nonprofits, labor unions and other organizations to exercise their First Amendment rights. But it serves another purpose for political observers, because the way outside dollars ebb and flow in individual campaigns can provide an inside look into which direction those races are headed.

Another Political Barometer

Political polling can be an incredibly valuable commodity that takes the pulse of the electorate, or it can be junk that's intentionally and carefully manipulated to generate false momentum or improve political fundraising. As I’ve written before, when it comes to polling, there are some telltale signs that can help you distinguish between the former and the latter. But even then, telling the difference is not always foolproof. 

Sometimes the best way to figure out where a race stands is to follow the money — specifically the outside money. Candidate campaigns have one and only one mission, to win, and they’ll fight until the bitter end even when they know they’re losing. If candidates have the money to keep their ads on TV and their ground game running, they’ll run full speed through Election Day.

But outside money is different — it prioritizes. Whether it’s a party committee like the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), an issue advocacy group like Americans for Prosperity, or a Harry Reid’s Senate Majority PAC, when outside groups see an opportunity to win, they jump in.  Conversely, these same groups tend pull out of a race for one of two reasons: victory is well in hand or, most likely, the writing on the wall, and the candidate stands to lose.

Take for example the decision by the NRSC to reserve more than $6 million in ad time in North Carolina as that race has tightened in recent weeks. The NRSC’s decision to invest millions more in the final weeks signals that they believe the gap between U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan (D) and state Speaker of the House Thom Tillis (R) is closing and victory is attainable.

In Virginia, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) recently canceled more than $2.8 million in advertising time in that state’s 10th Congressional District — as their chances of winning that seat appear to be diminishing. Instead of throwing good money after bad, the DCCC has decided to redeploy some of those resources to support the Democratic candidate in California’s 7th Congressional District, where (incidentally) outside groups on the Republican side recently invested heavily. And in Arkansas, despite rolling out two new attack ads against Asa Hutchinson, the Democratic Governors Association has actually canceled ad buys in the final weeks of the campaign as public polling has shown Hutchinson’s lead over Ross solidify

So as the 2014 campaign season comes to an end, with control of the U.S. Senate in play and high-profile contests for Congress, governor and countless other offices up for grabs across the country and here in Arkansas, I’ll be keeping a close watch on the outside groups and whether they continue to fish or cut bait. After all, when it comes to campaigns one thing is clear — money talks.

This is an Opinion

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[1] Though it could be worse. We could live in North Carolina where spending on that Senate race is reportedly approaching $40 million — with more than 71,000 ads aired to date.

[2] Notably, at the time of this writing, the Center for Public Integrity estimated spending by the Republican Governors Association to be about $1.1 million, while spending by Jobs and Opportunity (an affiliate of the Democratic Governors Association) to be $1 million.
(Robert Coon is a partner at Impact Management Group, a public relations, public opinion and public affairs firm in Little Rock and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. You can follow him on Twitter at RobertWCoon. His opinion column appears every other Wednesday in the weekly Government & Politics e-newsletter. You can subscribe for free here.)

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