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Is this the year that no one watches political spots?

There are no lawmakers pushing legislation to regulate political ads

President Barack Obama delivers his first State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Jan. 27, 2010. He warned about the influence of big money in politics.
President Barack Obama delivers his first State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Jan. 27, 2010. He warned about the influence of big money in politics. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Little more than a decade ago, campaign finance reform was one of the hottest issues animating Democrats. Now it seems as irrelevant as a national drive to make Esperanto America’s second language.

Barack Obama, in his 2010 State of the Union address, predicted that the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision “will open the floodgates for special interests.” The TV cameras caught Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. angrily shaking his head as he mouthed, “Not true.”

Obama was, of course, right.

Super PACs, created in the wake of Citizens United, are fast dominating politics. The arithmetic is irresistible: Candidates can urge the super wealthy to donate $3,300 (the legal maximum) to their general election campaigns or they can encourage them to make a seven-figure donation to a friendly super PAC.

As late as 2016, Hillary Clinton gave lip service to the cause in her convention acceptance speech: “We need to appoint Supreme Court justices who will get money out of politics and … we’ll pass a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United.”

But that was about the time when the Democrats discovered they could more than match the Republicans in super PAC largesse. And suddenly the issue faded like an Obama bumper sticker.

For a while, Democrats were apologetic as they explained that they couldn’t practice “unilateral disarmament” in the battle against the Republicans. Then, faced with the never-ending threat from Donald Trump, Democrats unapologetically adopted the GOP’s philosophy that anything goes in politics.

Roughly $8 billion was spent in 2020 on campaigns for federal office. And, with another bitterly fought presidential race and close battles for Congress, that number is likely to rise this year as fast as college tuition.

Early this month, Politico estimated that super PAC spending on federal races had more than doubled compared with the numbers from a similar period in 2020.

As super PACs play a larger role in politics, congressional candidates in both parties are fast losing control of their own campaigns. While the rules barring coordination between a super PAC and a candidate are increasingly porous, there can be sharp differences over what is the best political message.

An illustrative example is the collapse of Never Back Down, the super PAC that spent a jaw-dropping $158 million in 2023 supposedly boosting Ron DeSantis’ presidential campaign. Instead of powering the Florida governor to victory, the super PAC imploded with staff resignations and acrimony with the official DeSantis campaign before the Iowa caucuses.

Part of the problem is that there is so much money sloshing around politics in 2024 that greed becomes entwined with electoral strategies. All it takes is one smooth-talking political consultant and one gullible billionaire and, voilà, you have a new super PAC.

The result is that many TV ads from super PACs and cause groups are designed to appeal to one key constituency: politically naive donors. The spots may be off message for the candidate they are promoting, but they attract money to fund new ads and, of course, lucrative fees for the consultant.

This may also be the year when the TV ad (a staple of politics since “I Like Ike” cartoons in 1952) may finally lose its luster.

Three trends are colliding: The 2024 presidential race promises to be the most expensive in history. The campaign is expected to pivot around just six or seven swing states (Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Nevada, Arizona, Georgia and maybe North Carolina). And, thirdly, because of cord-cutting, 50 percent of households barely see any TV ads at all.

Pity the more than 30 million voters in those seven battleground states. Not only will they be thumped with nonstop political commercials, but their phones will also constantly beep with text messages from candidates. And these swing-state voters will only venture onto social media at their own peril.

Probably, at this very moment, both presidential campaigns are working on ways that a hologram of President Joe Biden or Trump can greet swing voters at their breakfast table each morning.

Amid the torrent of ads in every place except inside bottles of laundry detergent, congressional candidates will face a daunting challenge on how to break through the clutter.

Four Senate races and 14 up-for-grabs House seats are in those seven swing states. Throw in two other hotly contested House races in Nebraska and Maine, where electoral votes are awarded by congressional district.

When voters are savvy enough to recognize a negative TV spot as soon as they glimpse the first grainy photograph or hear the initial words of voice-of-doom narration, how can a House candidate, without an unlimited budget, ever communicate? And even Senate candidates will play second fiddle to the high-intensity presidential race.

Maybe the result in these swing states will be even more party-line voting than ever before. When the congressional and Senate races become a blur, regardless of the merits of individual candidates, it will be hard to motivate voters to split their tickets.

Obviously, there is no current constituency in Congress pressing to write legislation to regulate the cacophony of political ads. But at some point, maybe, legislators in both parties will come to the conclusion that the only people benefiting from the current system are (surprise) political consultants.

Granted, it is hard to shake the inbred belief in politics that a few million dollars more or one “killer” TV ad will make all the difference. But the sad truth is that in this politically saturated year, almost nobody is listening.

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