Arizona Advocacy Network

Government of, by and for the People

Advertising works all too well in politics

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Arizona Sen. John McCain called conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia "clueless" when he and his conservative colleagues voted to unleash unlimited amounts of corporate and multi-millionaire money into our political system in what has become known as the Citizens United decision.

Good government proponents, who view the growth of money in politics as toxic for democracy, were dismayed last week when the court declined to reconsider that unpopular decision and struck down Montana's centuries-old limit on corporate political spending.

We all wish voters would pay attention to candidates' records and not their ads. We like to think we are smart enough to make choices based on a rational evaluation of facts, regardless of what ads tell us. But if that were true, Coca-Cola and Pepsi would not spend more than $2 billion each annually to convince us to buy their sugar water and not the other guy's. When one drops behind the other in advertising spending, their sales drop, too.

In Wisconsin's recent recall election, the most expensive gubernatorial race in the state's history by far, at least $7 was spent on behalf of incumbent Scott Walker for every $1 spent on behalf of challenger Tom Barrett. And most of that money paid for 30- to 60- second ads that did absolutely nothing to enlighten the electorate.

Much has been reported about those shocking figures and the mind-boggling flood of corporate and multi-millionaire money spent on Walker's behalf. But those numbers don't tell the whole story.

As reported on Bradblog.com, the non-profit Media Action Center carefully reviewed talk-radio programs in Milwaukee-Racine, the state's top media market, during the 28-day campaign. Monitors armed with stopwatches counted the number of minutes each program devoted to specifically supporting or bashing Republican incumbent Scott Walker and his fellow Republicans, and compared that with time devoted to supporting or bashing Barrett and his fellow Democrats.

They found that talk-radio stations in Milwaukee were giving about 80 minutes every day for the GOP side as compared with 2 minutes every day for the Democrats. The value of that free airtime in ad dollars runs between $34,000 and $68,000 every single day for Walker and his Republican slate, vs. about $400 a day for the Democrats.

For the November election, Supreme Court-enabled Republican super PACs already are outraising those supporting Democrats by even greater margins than in the Wisconsin election. Given that more than 90 percent of talk radio in America is conservative, the imbalance in free airtime supporting the GOP vs. Democrats will be as dramatic as it was in Milwaukee.

We cannot pretend this doesn't matter. If, suddenly, Coke had this sort of advantage, Pepsi would soon be a footnote in history books alongside Nehi. And if the status quo in campaign financing is allowed to stand unchecked, Americans will soon be left with only one choice -- the one preferred by those with the most cash.

We must restore the founders' original vision of government "of, by and for the people," and stem government "of, by and for the corporations."

Mike Valder is president emeritus of the Arizona Advocacy Network.