Most Expensive Off-Year Election in History

Yves here. In this Real News Network interview, political scientist Tom Ferguson describes some of the salient characteristics of this week’s off-year election, including its unprecedentedly high level of campaign spending and low voter turnout. Ferguson explains that low turnout is a feature, not a bug, of the US system. That is one reason that articles like this one in Mother Jones, Obamacare Could Have Turned Millions of Uninsured Americans Into Voters, miss the point. Both parties are happy with a system that favors the rich and connected. Even if the Democratic party is on a slow-motion path to self-destruction, the party apparatchiks are still doing well personally by their misrule.

SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the 2014 midterm elections cost at least $3.67 billion. That will become a historic figure for midterm elections. And those figures only reflect what was spent at a maximum of 60 days before the elections. Let me repeat: $3.67 billion.

Here to discuss what all of this means to our democracy is Professor Tom Ferguson. Tom Ferguson is at the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. He’s also a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and the author of Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of Money-Driven Political Systems.
Thanks so much for joining us today, Tom.


PERIES: Tom, do we have a breakdown of which party spent the most of that $3.67 billion? And is it reflected in the outcome?

FERGUSON: Well, okay, remembering that what we’re actually talking about is a breakdown between what the parties spend and then what might be called their informal affiliates, that sort of allegedly independent outsiders, we actually don’t have a reliable breakdown of that, and we won’t have it till early December, actually, when the final reports come in. It will go over $4 billion, I would guess, and probably a good deal beyond that. And it’s just, you know, we’ve had the most expensive off-year election in American history. That I think you can say for sure.

But I think you–I would also venture to say–and you can see its effects plainly, not least–I mean, it’s not a big surprise that a lot of money pours in to the Republicans. There’s also vast amounts of money to the Democrats. And, frankly, if you’re looking for a reason to explain, how did these people do so badly, I think it’s got to–you know, in the end, it reflects the policies of the Obama administration and what the candidates feel willing and allowed to say before they lose their money. And if you’re sort of in the situation of Sam Nunn’s daughter, who was competing down there in the Senate race in Georgia, basically, as far as I can tell, walking around saying things like, you know, yeah, we need corporate tax cuts and things like that, it’s not surprising. If you give voters a choice between a Republican Party and something that looks sort of like the Republican Party, the people who vote (major qualification) are going to vote for the real property party, probably every time.

And so I think that the right to move here, I think, is to focus on just what happened in terms of voter repudiation of what yesterday. And my reading of those is, when you look at the polls, especially the one nicely laid out on CNN, you can find even the Republican voters dislike lots about Congress. And, of course, they dislike President Obama.

Democratic voters share a good deal of those feelings. Nobody’s very happy with where America’s going. They’re not happy with where it’s been recently. And they had jobs in the economy after there were some reports yesterday that were hard to understand about what might be on voters’ minds. As I look at these, you know, what I assume are corrected polls, it’s perfectly obvious that the economy was an overwhelming consideration for a lot of people.

PERIES: Tom, I understand that the voter turnout was also based on income. Can you explain?

FERGUSON: That’s always true. The thing to notice, I think, about this election is, first of all, we don’t–I haven’t seen any reliable estimate of the total national turnout, but based on the Ohio numbers, which are up there and you can read then, we may well have had the lowest turnout off-year election in many, many decades. The Ohio numbers look ridiculous. They are saying that–now, Ohio, like most states, reports a percentage of registered voters, and only, you know, two-thirds or so of the voters there are probably registered. But it’s looking to me on some back-of-the-envelope calculations that somewhere between a quarter and a third of the voters actually voted in Ohio. So even if you think you had–and in Ohio you’ve got a very strong vote for the Republicans, partly because the–let’s say the Democratic candidate for governor there labored under several real problems. You know, this may be a third of the total electorate. And so if you get–you know, the 60-40 split on that means you’re getting 18, 20 percent of the population of the state actually–voting age population actually winning there, voting for the winner, if you like.

I mean, this is pretty–I won’t call it Guatemala; we haven’t hit that yet, although some people–I mean, Chris Christie’s remark the other week about how they had to elect a lot of Republican governors in order to make sure that the right people voted was a bit much, frankly. We’re getting there. Some people are probably bent on turning it into that.

PERIES: Right. And, Tom, how does this compare to some of the other comparable Democratic countries in terms of the voter turnout?

FERGUSON: Oh, almost any time you ask that question, the answer’s got to be we look terrible, except maybe next to–for national elections, in Switzerland, which is a very strange system, where the real action’s below the federal level. And we look awful. There’s no mystery about this either. Most countries use some version of a national census or somebody goes to the trouble of preparing a list of voters. You know, even cities like Boston, which take a city census regularly, won’t do that. They won’t use the city censuses to do voter [lists]. I mean, they throw the costs on the voter. It’s very clear why they do that. Politicians don’t like having high voter turnout. And you can’t have high voter turnout and have the kind of money-driven politics we have in the United States. I mean, if you–you win by losing. If you put yourself into a situation where you’ve got–you know, you elected folks actually expecting something to happen, I mean, you’d sort of see an endless repeat, one is tempted to say, of 2008, which, you’ll remember, we all thought–not me; I was among those who said in advance it wasn’t going to happen; but everything at that point was hopey changey. But that’s life, at least in the United States.

PERIES: Voters highly favored increasing the minimum wage, legalization of pot, and access to abortions. How do you explain these outcomes in terms of the ballot measures?

FERGUSON: Well, that’s pretty easy, right? They were on the ballot directly. The point you want to notice is that they get on the ballot, typically, because the legislative process will put them through. And so what you have here is a sort of desperate effort to short-circuit money politics and stalemates typically created–I mean, it’s no news; the Republicans stalemate everything on abortion and the minimum wage, and both parties often try to just short-circuit marijuana. And if it’s inside the legislature, they can do that. It’s harder if you can get it on the ballot. That whole system was invented around the turn of the century precisely to break that kind of deadlock. And the evidence is that last night it did that in some places.

PERIES: Right. And, Tom, finally, you once wrote that–and I quote–Americans detest vote both parties. What did you mean by that?

FERGUSON: It means, dare I say, exactly what I said, that the feeling thermometers here toward either the Democrats or the Republicans are not high. And it’s clear that most of the population this time around, I think, they sort of–what you might call they voted for the evil of two lessers and then picked the lesser of two evils or whatever they thought, you know, with a diminishing share of the electorate. That’s the actual story here is that there’s a lot of unhappiness in the United States.

Now, the sort of weird part, of course, is what you’ve just brought in is pretty much, as far as I can tell, Republicans committed to roughly the same George W. Bush economic policies that led to the original 2008 collapse–I mean, with a lot of help, admittedly, from the Democratic administration in front of them that deregulated so much of American finance. But you’re now going to try to cure an anemic economy by going straight to more laissez-faire and cutting taxes on the rich. You know, that’s not going to work, I mean, is absolutely for sure will not work. I know you can read the difference in The Wall Street Journal or something, but aggregate demand’s very low. China’s going down. Europe’s going down. The Fed sort of cut its quantitative easing program essentially to–now it’s zero, it’s over, or so they say. And these guys don’t have any real good cards to play.

There has to be a fiscal policy expansion, meaning direct–somebody’s going to have to stimulate spending. It would also be nice if they’d sort of patch up the finances of ordinary people the way they patched up the finances of banks. But for sure there’s got to be a fiscal policy expansion to get any real growth in the United States. That’s not going to happen.

PERIES: Yeah, there’s no evidence that the Republicans will do that. And this is also a vote against the Democrats and Obama’s financial policy, or lack thereof, in terms of addressing this problem. Just elaborate on that before we take off. I mean, this was also a vote of the discontent of the working class and the unemployed and their economic situation at the moment.

FERGUSON: Well, the middle class, too. I mean, it’s just a lot of folks. A lot of folks follow a relatively simple rule that was followed in the Great Depression. And then what typically happened: it would then get weird after five or six years. And we’re reaching the point where it might be going to get weird, which is in-out, out-in. I mean, we’ve been basically playing musical chairs since 2006. And only the fact that Obama was running against Mitt Romney–who was just Richie Rich, a caricature, stereotype of Republicans as representing the 1 percent–who, by the way–you know, you’ve really got to say on polls, when you look at last night’s polls, you will see that exactly 1 percent of the population (actually, probably not exactly) said they thought the economic conditions were excellent. In that sense, polls might be telling the truth there. And except for that reason, Obama probably would have lost in 2012.

I mean, this is–basically, you’ve got a headless horseman in American government right now. And this peculiar form of the war of all against all, that is to say, all of the legislative branch, Congress, against all of the executive branch, controlled by the Democrats, this is a guaranteed stalemate machine, I think, except on a few things. Like, you can be sure the defense budget’s going up; maybe they’ll do the Trans-Pacific Partnership, though I’m less confident of that than a lot of other people–a few things, in other words, that really matter to virtually all of corporate America, or nearly so. But otherwise, we have actually just taken another notch down, I think, in terms of the descent into the Maelström in this world.

PERIES: Tom, I thank you again for joining us.


PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Dirk77

    When they sift through the rubble after civilization collapses, one takeaway I think will be that elections should be publicly funded – or at least trying it would be well worth the experience. What a mess. You foolish earthlings.

  2. bmeisen

    Some democracies fund elections publicly, e.g. Germany where parties that top electoral thresholds receive legislative mandates and qualify for public funding. Paired with citizen registration this proportional system with public funding is characterized by the regular emergence of new parties both at the national and the state levels. The GReens and the Pirate Party are recent examples of the political transformations possible in this system. There are also awkward aspects like the public funding given to the neo-nazi npd in Sachsen. Nevertheless it is an example of successful inclusive democracy IMHO. Ferguson is right when he points to the voter eligibility/participation dissonance in the US electorate. In fact no one in the US knows the exact number of eligible voters thanks to the aerosolization of civic services. Voter registration offices tend to be down behind the roadkill/abandonned pet incinerator. This system is pre-programmed for customized turnouts (thank you christie for verbalizing this reality) which stiffles change. Citizen registration requirements partnered with centralized civic services would be a significant move in the right direction, short of a Constitutional amendment establishing parties and their funding as well as proportional representation. In Germany residents must register with the civic authorities (Anwohnermeldepflicht) whenever they change residence, i.e. we are forced to provide the state with our names, ages and addresses and nationalities. Of course in the US this amounts to socialism: tell your social network everything and dismiss the fact that the network is giving it to the secret police, but don’t let city hall know where you’re living and that you might want to send your kids to a local school next year.

  3. AQ

    So if I’m an individual who makes a $100 million investment, which admittedly sounds like a lot unless of course I’m worth a few billion or maybe trillion, did it really cost me that?

    Won’t I be getting at least some of that money back via tax deductions (I can’t imagine that all of that money is tagged as political contributions: I’m thinking business expenditures and charitable giving depending on the hows and which orgs are involved)?

    Won’t I be getting some of that money back via profits, dividends, and stock prices of companies I have at least partial ownership in? aka if most of the country’s wealth is owned by the few then aren’t they recycling much of it back into their own pockets whether it’s mass media, paper companies, mass mailers, cable networks, Google & Facebook ads, etc..

    If so, then isn’t all this talk about numbers also a distraction? (much like the whole family budget vs. government budget concept is). Publicly funded elections although an interesting concept would be just a bandaid to treat the symptom as opposed to the disease (the accumulation of wealth).

    1. Carla

      Don’t talk silly, AQ. Your investment will be amply repaid and continue to earn you hefty returns courtesy of a winning candidate. Even if the candidate loses, the party will court you. You will be able to write legislation, or ensure that it is written to your specifications. You will have ACCESS.

      Until we remove ill-gotten constitutional rights from corporations (and yes, unions, non-profits–all corporate entities) and money out of the First Amendment, “democracy” will be the best investment a rich person–or corporation–can make.

      1. AQ

        Carla, I wasn’t being silly and the questions I raised had to do with direct costs not return on investment. I wanted to know whether that $4 Billion dollars is a real number or an accounting smoke and mirrors trick?

  4. Roquentin

    The whole system is rigged, top to bottom. One thing that’s worth noting is that pretty much any dictator, no matter how autocratic, will hold some kind of sham elections. This happens with very few exceptions. Lukashenko in Belarus for example, has elections. Even North Korea has some semblance of sham elections. The point is that if you were, even in a purely hypothetical sense living in an out and out dictatorship, there’d still be a set of bogus elections you’d have to participate in.

    When you acknowledge that, I ask you just what’s really going on here in the US? Take a long look in the mirror and let that one sink in.

Comments are closed.