Our Community. Our Nation. Our World.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Historic $14 Billion Spent In Presidential And Congressional Races

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Say you decide to invest a bunch of money into something - like a whole lot of money. You would sort of expect to get a good return on that investment, right? Democrats are doing some soul-searching after the election about the investment they made into flipping congressional seats that did not flip.

To talk more about what money really buys in elections, here's Ami Copeland. He's the former deputy national finance director for Barack Obama's first presidential campaign and former senior finance adviser to the Democratic National Committee. Ami, thanks for being here.

AMI COPELAND: Good morning, Rachel. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So much money, Ami - so much money. I mean, going into the final week of the campaign, Democrats had spent $6.9 billion, basically twice as much as Republicans. Democrats lost House seats. They didn't flip nearly the number of Senate seats they were hoping for. On its face, it doesn't seem like it was a great investment.

COPELAND: Well, there's an old saying in politics that remains true today - early money screams, and late money whispers. With early money, we see that campaigns have more time to be innovative. They get to try new voter contact and persuasion programs, invest in technology, text messaging and ultimately create a campaign that has agility. Also, money begets money. The earlier campaigns are able to raise, the more they get at the end of the day. However, on the flip side, campaigns can do less with money that comes in late, as we saw with many of these Democratic Senate pickup opportunities this cycle. Just because - traditionally, campaigns budget against what they think will come in; they are less prepared to spend it outside of that budget. So they end up just doubling down on what they'd been doing before and not know whether or not if it's working until the end.

MARTIN: So let's talk specifics. I mean, is that what happened in South Carolina with Jaime Harrison's effort to unseat Lindsey Graham? Was it an abundance of late money that didn't make much of a difference, or was it that it was coming from outside the state? What happened there?

COPELAND: Well, I think it was a little bit of both with South Carolina and probably in Maine and some of the other states as well. You just - they really didn't have many new ways to spend that money and not sure how they were able to find other opportunities to engage new voters. Do they work on persuasion? Do they work on voter turnout? Do they have whatever other ideas that they may have to spend it on? You just really - they just didn't have time to spend it as much as they could. And I think we saw that with other campaigns as well.

MARTIN: We should just note - Jaime Harrison raised $57 million in the final fall quarter, which is just really unbelievable. I mean, can you talk about how different money does different things? Right? Like so much of Jaime Harrison's money came from out of state. What's the power of that money as opposed to smaller grassroots donations that come from in state? I imagine they do different things. There's value to them both.

COPELAND: Yeah, certainly. And I think we need to think about it in two different categories, both - one on the national campaigns as it relates to president - or Vice President Biden's and on the other, the state and local campaigns nationally. As we saw with Biden, having a well-funded campaign was critical in expanding the map. It forced the president's campaign to expend precious resources in states that they thought were safe, like in Texas and in Florida. When Biden becomes president, analysts, I think, will look at the disparity in campaign spending and see where - the states where Biden won, like Michigan and Wisconsin, and see that as an important factor in his victory.

When it comes to those state and local campaigns, however, we really should be examining more closely as to where those donations come from and not mistake those overall totals for local voter enthusiasm.

MARTIN: I mean, I have to ask - the battle for the White House, the Senate and the House, it cost campaigns a total of $14 billion - I mean, $14 billion that could have been used to make schools safe to reopen in the pandemic, to give economic relief to the unemployed. I mean, you can go on and on and on about how that money could have been used. It's hard for a lot of Americans to stomach the amount of money that goes into campaigns, especially this year. I mean, is this worrisome to you for our democracy?

COPELAND: Absolutely. This has been a growing concern ever since Citizens United a few years back. And I think this is an arms race that we're going to continue to see get ramped up over the coming years. But, you know, I think one of those big differences is that, you know, that money is coming from other people. It's not coming from the government. It's not coming from any other place. So it's where individuals are looking to spend that money. And, you know, folks can pretty much determine where they want to do it and when they want to do it.

MARTIN: Ami Copeland, former deputy national finance director for Barack Obama. Thank you for your time.

COPELAND: Thank you so much, Rachel. Have a great day.

MARTIN: You, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.