Political advertising reception and what it means for democracy

In the aftermath of Citizens United, outside political spending has become unleashed. This new political reality troubles many, especially those on the left. With no checks on outside political spending, those with the most money can spend an unlimited amount of money to influence elections. We’ve seen how ugly this can get with the recent revelations about Joe Ricketts plan to unleash waves of race-baiting advertisements against Barack Obama.

How we should understand the electoral terrain after Citizens United is a matter of some controversy. Those of more radical persuasions point out that wealthy interests have always dominated political campaigns. To pretend that Citizens United changed the nature of political influence is to do just that: pretend. Concomitant with this view is the belief that differential political influence is an unavoidable feature of an economically unequal society. Those who have more money will always use their money to dominate politics, and use the state apparatus to become even richer.

Liberals and progressives understand things a bit differently. While many might concede some of the anti-democratic problems with inequality, they argue that unequal political influence can be curbed to some degree. Caps on outside spending might not totally level the electoral playing field, but it might make it more level. Publicly-financed election systems might not eliminate more discreet forms of kickbacks, but it would be an improvement.

Underlying this whole discussion about electoral spending is the unstated assumption that political advertising actually works. Although not usually a point of contention, the evidence offered in favor of this view tends to be pretty simplistic. Commentators will point to close congressional races where outside spenders ran hundreds of thousands of dollars of ads in the last few weeks, tiling the election in one direction. Although not rigorous, such cases at least present plausible stories. On the flipside, there is rigorous psychological evidence suggesting that political ads do have an impact on voter perception, but that such impact wears off after a short time.

It seems certain that political advertisement must have at least some marginal impact. The idea that no voter has ever been moved to cast a vote in one direction or another from political advertising seems preposterous. But the size of the marginal impact is really significant for questions about democracy. If the marginal impact is quite small — only a few voters are swayed by such ads — then unequal electoral spending is a problem for democracy and the less well off, but not as significant a problem as some suggest.

If the marginal impact of political ads is very large, then that poses not only a significant problem for democracy, but also a challenge to the viability of democracy itself. What does it say about the viability of democracy when large numbers of people can be moved to vote by 30-second ads lacking any real substance? If political ads have such significant effects, that would suggest that many voters are very manipulable. If voters are that manipulable, then equalizing electoral spending does not seem to really fix the democratic problem. If manipulable and unsophisticated voters still exist, what do their votes actually tell us about their political will?

All things equal, more equal electoral spending is better than less. But the only reason unequal electoral spending could have such a unfair impact in elections is if large swaths of the electorate lack any sort of political sophistication, leaving themselves open to manipulation by political advertisement. If voters really are that unsophisticated — and indeed they may be — it is hard to understand what is more democratic about equal campaign spending. Equal campaign spending just means both sides have an equal chance to manipulate unsophisticated voters into their camp. Votes that result from such manipulation would still not track any sort of political will, and therefore be just as damaging to a purist notion of what democracy is about.