According to estimates, nearly $14 billion was spent on the 2020 elections with a large share going to TV, radio and digital advertising. This political advertising is well-examined elsewhere, but if perhaps $8 billion of this was spent on advertising, where did that other $6 billion go?
The answer is generally to the same place as all that advertising money – to the ever-expanding political industrial complex. This is the vast industry that has monetized most aspects of our democracy. It has become such a behemoth that regardless which candidates win or lose, the industry’s vast phalanx of political consultants, fundraisers, pollsters, message gurus, staff, software providers, and web and social media teams always get paid – and paid ever more lucratively.
A good example of the ceaseless nature of this beast is the 2019-20 campaign of U.S. Rep. Ami Bera.* The four-term candidate from California’s 7th Congressional District faced no major opposition in either his primary or general election. He also ran no TV or radio ads, and never even updated his 2018 campaign site. Yet, he still spent more than $1.1 million.
So why didn’t Bera take a rest from his relentless fundraising? (He raised more than $1.7 million.) Why not channel most of that time and mental bandwidth into something more publicly beneficial? Say writing effective legislation, lobbying fellow lawmakers to pass it, or pushing for funds for important projects that can benefit his district?
The simple answer is the political industrial complex is a very demanding beast that requires to be fed rain or shine. Any element not serving as a dutiful worker bee for whole hive risks being expunged one way or another.
However, while the political industrial complex demands money to be continually fed into the system, it doesn’t demand it to be spent wisely. Here’s a breakdown of Bera’s 2019-20 expenditures through Oct. 14 as submitted to the Federal Election Commission (FEC):
What leaps out is that more than half (54%) went to just two areas: fundraising and the Democratic Party.
First, Bera donated $350,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) in 2019. In no way does this expense benefit his re-election, but FEC rules – written by the political parties – allows candidates’ official campaign committees to “transfer unlimited campaign funds to a party committee or organization.” These often count toward the “dues” each incumbent member of Congress is expected to kick up to the national party.
These transfers help Senate and House campaign committees make their own offerings to the political industrial complex and keep all kinds of attorneys, marketers, staff, pollsters and focus group consultants on the payroll. Some of the money is also paid out as PAC contributions to individual Congressional candidates and as unlimited “independent” expenditures to assist in key races.
Transfers like Bera’s are key to securing leadership positions and committee chairmanships. The $350,000 Bera gave to the DCCC currently ranks him as the 16th most generous Democratic House member, and in December, he was rewarded. Despite ranking third in seniority on the House Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and Nonproliferation and never passing a single piece of legislation to that point, he was named chairman.
Bera’s second largest “campaign expense” was for fundraising (23%). Of this $278,000, about $185,000 went as commissions to Bera’s biggest fundraiser the last two cycles: Helen Milby. Fundraisers are classic but overlooked cogs in the political industrial complex. They generally get 15% of everything they raise, but every dollar they raise from a wealthy PAC or donor, is another dollar of access and representation sold to groups outside the candidate’s home district.
Milby and Bera also fundraise for the moderate New Democrat Coalition’s PAC, with Milby receiving $462,000 in consulting and treasurer fees from that PAC this cycle. Bera and the New Democrats, in fact, represented 79% of the nearly $800,000 in 2019-20 receipts Milby reported to the FEC through Oct. 1. This exemplifies how lucrative a business this is for some while eroding our democracy for all.
The next largest Bera cost center was the $188,000 (or 16%) spent on campaign office rent, supplies, and payroll for staff of three. Ostensibly, this was to conduct campaign work, but again, Bera did not even lightly campaign. Consider this an insurance policy – “if needed” standby staff if a race takes a turn for the worst and becomes unexpectedly competitive.
The Digital Services category accounted for 10% of campaign expenditures at a little under $112,000, mostly billed by New Blue Interactive. Some of this could have been for online advertising; however, most of the payments were in regular fixed amounts suggestive of a retainer. Plus two-thirds of the billed work came in 2019, indicating any work performed most probably supported fundraising rather than direct electioneering.
The only items in Bera’s filings clearly spent on campaign work included $30,000 for a poll apparently conducted in August. were in the areas of Printing & Postage and Digital Services. The other area was printing and postage, which generally covers creating campaign collateral like lawn signs and sending out mailers. But the $20,550 spent as of Oct. 14 suggests the barest of investment there, especially given more than 400,000 registered voters in his district.
So how much of Bera’s $1.1 million spend went to actual campaign work? Not including what portion of his campaign office expenses one considers involved in actual campaign work, then perhaps just the $50,000 was spent on typical in-district electioneering activities. The rest fed the maw of the political industrial complex.
However over the last two election cycles, Bera has also built up $2 million in unspent cash. If future Bera campaigns are competitive, you can expect two things. First, Bera would spend a lot of money, and two, this will be spent with wild inefficiency.
Thus a traditional candidate trying to beat Bera at the same corporate-fundraising game won’t have a great chance. But a purist, pro-voter candidate with solid backing by Progressive, Labor and environmental groups could have the same opportunity to defeat Bera as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) achieved against a very similar incumbent in Joe Crowley in 2018.
The similarities are significant. Both Bera and Crowley are corporate-backed moderate Democrats focused more on climbing the D.C. leadership ladder than delivering for their constituents. Both vote more conservatively than their voting bases. Also both candidate’s need to feed the political industrial complex beast that leads to very inefficient use of their cash advantages.
For example, Crowley reported in his 2017-2018 FEC filings to have spent more than $400,000 on catering, meals and other food. Plus everything he spent on advertising needed to sell him as something he wasn’t: that he wasn’t a creature of D.C., more focused on party politics and leadership advancement than delivering for the voters back home.
For these reasons, Ocasio-Cortez did not need to come close to matching Crowley’s $4.3 million. She raised just $300,000 for the primary (and even wasted some on an unnecessary late poll), but she beat Crowley by 13 points with an energized volunteer base and interested local media providing ample free earned media coverage.
This is the clear roadmap for defeating a Goliath incumbent despite having only a fraction of the campaign funds. But this does take what money can never buy: an appealing, passionate candidate and an energized voting base that can see past the mirage of a big, establishment war chest.
* SactoPolitico.com founder and editor Jeff Burdick ran in the March 3rd Congressional primary as a first-time candidate against Bera, Patterson and two other candidates. Burdick is a trained journalist, and six months after the primary election, he returned to this vocation by starting The Sacto Politico.
Other articles in the Shame of Our Campaign series: