Tuesday, October 14, 2008

McCain, the Media, Money, and Montesinos (and Obama Too)

Fascinating analysis of money in politics. And of money and politics.

So Barack Obama continues to raise millions upon millions of dollars, and if he wins the election a lot of people will certainly attribute his victory, at least in significant part, to this money. But should they?

It seems obvious that money wins elections.

What really matters for a political candidate is not how much you spend; what matters is who you are.

The money Obama is spending is staggering: $160 million on TV ads, easily dwarfing every other expenditure. Staff salaries, for instance, were $44 million; campaign events cost $16 million. And $21 million on TV in the first week of October alone, and is buying up prime-time network space at the end of October to run a 30-minute infomercial.

That is a lot of money. But our argument is that money is more a symptom of a winning campaign than a cause.

How so?

In other words: it’s not that raising a lot of money helps a candidate become more appealing and therefore do better; it’s that better candidates raise a lot of money because they are so appealing. Just remember: about a year ago, Mitt Romney was loaded and John McCain was just about broke. If money is so central to elections, why couldn’t Romney put McCain away? And how on earth did McCain end up winning the G.O.P. nomination?

That's convincing: Romney was supposed, by some, to be a shoo-in, or a favorite, because he had business savvy, a pretty family, a solid record. But he tanked.

So what is the right way to think about the relationship between money, the media, and campaign outcomes? Is it wise for Obama to spend so much on media? Is it wise for McCain to risk alienation of the media? Would all that money and energy be better spent on something else? There may be some wisdom to be gleaned from a strange incident in the not-too-distant past in Peru. A few years ago, the economists John McMillan and Pablo Zoido wrote a fantastically interesting paper about Vladimiro Montesinos, who ran the Peruvian secret service under President Alberto Fujimori.

I well remember Fujimori. Late in his presidency, and after he fell, Montesinos emerged as a sleazeball. Fuji's sleazeball.

Of the four main categories of bribe beneficiaries — police, judges, politicians, media owners — whom do you think Montesinos paid off the most?

Here’s the answer, as summarized by Richard Morin in The Washington Post:

It wasn’t even close. “One single television channel’s bribe was four times larger than the total of the opposition politicians’ bribes,” [the economists] found. “By revealed preference, the strongest check on the government’s power was the news media.”

The power of media. One fascinating detail about Palin's tete-a-tete with the NY Times is that she began to quote the Times.

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