When Democrats in Virginia and 13 other Super Tuesday states go to the polls Tuesday, the immediate question they will face is who they want their party’s nominee to be. There’s another question that hangs over Super Tuesday’s balloting, though: Can elections be bought?
That’s the $505.8 million — and counting — question posed by Michael Bloomberg’s unprecedented free-spending campaign. At least that’s the way it’s framed by opponents — that he’s trying to buy the election. That’s a good line, and a natural one to use. We’ve never seen a presidential candidate this rich, and this willing to spend so much of his own money. Before we buy into that criticism, though, we ought to examine the premise behind it: Is it even possible to buy an election through the sheer size of an advertising campaign?
According to figures compiled by the data website FiveThirtyEight.com, Bloomberg has more ads than all the other candidates put together. The second-biggest ad buy is from the other billionaire in the race — Tom Steyer, who has spent about half as much. By contrast, Federal Election Commission reports show that Bloomberg has spent 3.5 times as much as Bernie Sanders; 4.5 times as much as Elizabeth Warren; 5.3 times as much as Pete Buttigieg, 6.5 times as much as Joe Biden, and 12.9 times as much as Amy Klobuchar. Bloomberg’s spending is simply off the charts.
It’s fashionable to criticize the role of money in politics – we’ve done it ourselves – but that role is sometimes misunderstood. Money can sway some politicians on certain non-ideological issues. It’s no accident that the General Assembly is now looking favorably upon casinos — casino interests have spread around $1.3 million in campaign contributions. But no amount of money is going to persuade a liberal to support the National Rifle Association or a conservative to back gun control. Ditto abortion. Those involve core philosophies that aren’t for sale.
So what can money buy? In this case, Bloomberg’s money can buy him enough ads on television and social media to put his message before almost everybody. The other candidates can’t do that. Bloomberg’s money can buy a bigger staff than any other candidate and that bigger staff can be used to reach more potential voters through phone calls and text messages and mailers and door-to-door canvassing than anyone else can do. Elections are really an exercise in physics — how much force is required to identify potential supporters and move them to the polls? Bloomberg’s money allows him to apply Newton’s First Law of Motion — an object at rest will stay at rest unless something moves it — on a grander scale than any of the other candidates.
Now, here’s what all his money can’t buy: It can’t buy the voters themselves. Whatever votes Bloomberg winds up with on Tuesday will happen because those people agreed to vote for him. If he’s buying an election, then it’s only because the voters themselves agreed to be bought. They are immoveable objects no matter how much force is applied unless and until they themselves decide to move.
A poorly-funded campaign is certainly at a disadvantage — Klobuchar can’t reach as many people with her message as Bloomberg can. But a well-funded campaign still depends on the acquiescence of voters. It’s like the parable about the slick advertising campaign for a new brand of dog food. The company thought it had taken care of everything — scientists had concocted the perfect recipe, the agency had come up with spiffy graphics and the snazziest ad campaign they’d ever mounted. Yet sales were flat. Company executives debated who to blame until someone finally suggested: “Maybe the dogs don’t like it.” Whatever votes Bloomberg gets on Tuesday will depend on whether voters like what he’s selling. Dogs know what food they like or don’t like; surely people are just as discerning when it comes to voting?
That’s why we don’t really believe elections can be bought — voters themselves have the agency here. They often discount their own power. That leads us to another thought: The Russians and any others inclined to meddle in American elections.
We now know a lot of what we see on social media is part of a Russian disinformation campaign. A study by researchers at the University of Southern California and Indiana University found that perhaps 15% of the accounts on Twitter aren’t real people — they’re automated accounts, “bots” in the parlance. Twitter last year banned 4,000 disinformation accounts originating in Russia, 3,300 from Iran and 750 from Venezuela — yet Wired magazine reported that “Twitter still can’t keep up with its flood of junk accounts.” A more recent study by researchers at Brown University concluded that 25% of tweets related to climate change — denying that such a thing is happening — came from bots. It should be clear by now that much of what gets passed around on social media is simply untrue. Whether Russia wants Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders is ultimately irrelevant; what Russia really wants is to disrupt American society. Why bother launching a missile when it can simply launch a meme — knowing that gullible Americans will do the rest?
The point here: People shouldn’t be so quick to share that post you just read — because it may not be real. You may, in fact, be making yourself an unwitting accomplice to Russian propagandists. Yes, it’s unflattering to the other side, but simply because you want it to be true doesn’t mean that it actually is. Americans are naturally vigilant in lots of ways. We may trust our neighbors, but we lock our doors anyway. If someone rings the door bell, we look through the peephole first to see who it is. A significant number of us carry concealed weapons. Here’s a case where we know that a foreign government is eager to spread disinformation — a fancy word for “lies” — and set Americans against one another. If we knew Russian agents were going door-to-door in our neighbor trying to stir up trouble, we’d make sure the door was bolted and some of us would open it only when we had our Glock unholstered. Now that we know the Russians are infiltrating our social media with clever lies, we ought to show the same level of vigilance before we hit “share.” Can you verify that information from some reputable source? Or are you going to risk doing the bidding of a foreign agent?
Ultimately, this brings us back to the point we were making about Bloomberg’s money: If Russians or anybody else influence our elections, it’s only because we allow ourselves to be influenced.