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Money, not issues, determines elections’ outcome

About a year ago, I interviewed political scientist Fred Lokken about Nevada’s changing politics. Among other things, he said that Nevada’s demographics were falling the Democratic Party’s way, essentially making the state blue.

“I’ve been saying that since we had the 2010 census results,” he said. “That alone puts us demographically in a blue column. … I think that in 2016 we will stop being a battleground state. I think it’ll be one of the states that the Democrats can kind of count on in their column all the time.”

In researching it, I found that the statistics backed him up. In the 2012 election, in category after category, Nevada Democrats did better than Democrats nationally, including in the presidential race. Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney by 3.86 percent nationally, but by 6.68 percent among Nevadans.

What neither he, I or a lot of people foresaw was a U.S. Supreme Court decision that came out eight months after Lokken and I talked — McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, invalidating cumulative limits on campaign contributions, allowing the rich to pour unlimited sums into campaigns. When wedded to two earlier decisions by the court (Buckley v. Valeo, which ruled that money is speech, and Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which said corporations are persons entitled to first amendment protection and thus can spend as much as they want in campaigns) the effect hit Campaign 2014 like a sledgehammer.

In 40 years of covering politics, I’ve never seen so much money — nearly all of it going to one side — or greater impact of money on various races.

Here’s an example. One year ago an opinion survey showed Nevadans supporting the measure now known as Question 3 by a margin of 57 to 38 percent. That measure provides for a business tax and is sponsored by a state teachers group. Today, after business groups raised three or four times as much as the teachers could, those figures have reversed to 40-­37 opposed, a huge turnaround.

The issue isn’t just whether the business tax is a good or bad idea. It’s whether there is anything resembling a level playing field for Nevadans as they try to decide whether it’s a good or bad idea. There isn’t. Instead, they are pounded by a flood of messages from one side. It also demonstrates the nonsense of claims that the volume of union money can compete with the volume of corporate money in campaigns.

In candidate races, it’s just as bad. It’s amazing the Democrats are even competitive in this deluge of money. They’ve always been underfunded, but the law restrained the sheer volume of cash. Now the wraps are off.

Next, the gaffe-­prone GOP U.S. House candidate Crescent Hardy, whose self-inflicted wounds virtually put him out of the running by last month (Las Vegas Review Journal columnist Steve Sebelius/Sept. 24: “But now, it seems, he’s doomed”), will receive a whopping $820,000 injection of money from Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, a Karl Rove-­founded group, to bring him back to life.

Again, the merits of the candidates are not the only issue. It’s whether victories can be won with money that cannot be won with fair debate on a level playing field, whether empty suits who can breathe on a mirror but have few other skills or principles can be propped up and pushed forward by cascades of money.

It’s also whether we want to live with a system in which public sentiment becomes something that is routinely overcome by dollars and ironing boards can be elected to office if gigantic amounts of corporate money are put behind them.

Dennis Myers is a veteran and Nevada journalist.

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