Last weekend it was reported that Barack Obama set a new standard by raising an astonishing $150 million in a single month, September. By contrast, John McCain, who stuck by his pledge to have his campaign funded publicly, is limited to a total of $84 million from convention to election (and probably wouldn’t have been able to raise more had he opted to go private). The implications of this financial disparity are, at the least, troubling.
Obama has been using the majority of his riches to buy television advertising in swing states, and even in some states that are not generally thought to be “swing.” In one of those new-found swing states, North Carolina, Obama commercials outnumber McCain commercials 8 to 1. As a former resident of that state, I know that many North Carolinians don’t read; they get all their information from the television. McCain’s last minute efforts, hampered by limited funds, have been supplemented by the pedestrian (though affordable) tool of automated phone calls. It doesn’t take a political pundit to know if the average Joe is more likely to hang up a phone or turn off a TV. If Obama wins in North Carolina, there will be reason to wonder if it isn’t because the average person, hearing one message eight times and the opposite message once, simply came to believe the message heard more often. Regardless of which candidate you favor the idea of people’s votes being bought, either through direct payment or media blitz, should be unsettling.
At the same time Obama’s fundraising record was being reported, a smaller item described the changing patterns of campaign contributions made by big pharmaceutical companies. Pharma has historically contributed to both parties, but more heavily to Republicans. Recently, perhaps sensing the shifting tides of democracy, that pattern has been reversed.
As we contemplate the possibility of a historical outcome to a campaign built on the promise of change, we should also be mindful of the corruptive power of money, and the sobering reality that in a system so predicated on money, the one thing you probably can’t buy is change.
On a broader scale, given the current economic times, the excesses of the campaign as a whole are disturbing. Today’s New York Times reports that the total cost of this election campaign will top $5 billion. And that only goes to Election Day. Who can fathom the price tag of the inauguration? If it ends being put on by the same people who brought us the political convention as grandiose, opulent Roman spectacle, you can bet it will add handsomely to the already bloated price tag of this exercise in modern American democracy.