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Is the Dollar Mightier Than the Vote?

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A few months ago, a good friend and I had a heated dinner conversation over the power of money in politics. As he asserted the power and importance of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and its decision (at least at the time) to remain apolitical, he vehemently argued that voting was no longer the most important currency in politics. Rather, money was king, and as long as corporations and rich individuals could give limitlessly through Citizens United, politics was essentially useless. As more and more individuals divorce themselves from the political process, this logic is gaining traction. Money and special interests are so ingrained in politics that the common individual has no power, they say.

In reality, however, despite the many faults with our current democratic system, there is only one way that an individual gets into public office: receiving more votes than anybody else (unless your name is Al Gore). From a technical standpoint, money plays absolutely no role in deciding whether a politician is elected or not. Thus, from a technical standpoint, voting is still king.

The problem is that, as citizens, we ourselves are the culprits for enabling a money-driven system that perpetuates disinformation, simplification, and the complete stagnation of policy in our nation's capital. It is way too easy, and simple, to blame politicians and corporations for the corrupt influence of money in the democratic process. Our nation's citizens bear just as much, if not more, of the blame.

The blame starts with our preferred medium of communication these days: our televisions. The majority of funds raised during the 2012 Republican election cycle have gone towards TV advertisements. According to research done by the Washington Post, including PAC expenditures, over $77 million has been spent on television ads this cycle. Mitt Romney's super PACs have led the way, spending $30 million on ads, of which 97% have been negative.

When Newt Gingrich gained momentum in November and December of 2011, threatening Mitt Romney's hold as the front-runner, Romney's super PAC absolutely barraged ads on Iowa households, to the tune of $3.3 million in less than a month. The ads focused on Gingrich's ethics violations as Speaker of the House, his climate change ads with Nancy Pelosi, and his immense personal baggage. And after the ads went up, Gingrich's lead evaporated, almost instantly. And so, for many, the power of money in politics was confirmed.

But it wasn't the money itself that vaulted Romney back into the lead. It was the fact that Iowa's voters were influenced by 30-second ads that focused on style over substance. Faced with a decision as monumental as selecting the next leader of the free world, voters allowed corporate-financed commercials to influence their choice, rather than studying policy proposals or attending town-hall meetings. This strategy was confirmed again just weeks later in Florida. After Gingrich's game-changing South Carolina victory, Romney's bank account filled (and emptied again). His super PACs emptied over $10.7 million into the states, with over 98% of ads in the state being negative. Again, he sailed to an overwhelming victory.

This is slightly incomprehensible to me. When I needed to buy a new computer, I researched all the models out there, asked friends, tried them out, and took a good amount of time. Did television ads I had seen matter? Subconsciously, probably. But they were not the ultimate factor. In politics, they can be.

Money matters as long as we allow it to matter. If voters in Iowa and Florida had demanded concrete policy proposals, traveled in droves to town hall meetings, and evaluated the candidates on substance, everything would be different. The tenor of candidates would be less about the superficial, and more about the issues that matter to the everyday voter. And candidates would spend less money on television ads, because voters would be too smart to be influenced by them.

Saying money is more powerful than voting is a little like saying the media is to blame for our increasing celebrity/reality-driven culture. It's now popular to complain how the Kardashian weddings receive more media exposure than substantive events like impending nuclear disaster in Iran. But this exposure is completely consumer driven. We watch them on MTV. We read them in People Magazine. We crave even more of them. It is our faults that the Kardashians get so much more attention than events that actually affect our futures.

We are on the cusp of a 2012 presidential election that is going to involve absolutely unprecedented amounts of money. When we include the super PACs, it will be cost than $2 billion, or approximately the GDP of Greenland.

But, at the end of the day, the next President of the United States will be the man who brings home more electoral votes, not the man who brings home more money. So it is completely up to us to decide if we want to actually create the conditions necessary for a substantive policy debate about the issues of the day, or if we veer towards the superficial. Recent history does not look promising. But if the 2012 election involves way too much money and way too little substance, we have no one but ourselves to blame.

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