BUYING THE VOTE

( From September 2012, but still pertinent)

    Dear President Obama, I received a nice letter from you today. In it, you told me that you knew these were hard times for a lot of people, and that  you sympathized with them. You talked about all the good things you have accomplished in your first term (I agree). You expressed sorrow that you couldn't do more, but said that the Republicans wouldn't let you (obvious, to anyone following the news).  You said you fully expect to win another term as President, but that you are concerned because the Republicans are putting a lot of money into defeating you. That's when you asked me for financial help.

   Mr. President, I will vote for you. I expect to vote for every Democrat on my ballot - not because you're all the wisest, smartest, most competent people in the world, but because I think voting Republican (any Republican, nowadays) is voting against my best interests, the best interests of our nation, and the best interests of the world. I could send you a small check, I suppose, but consider this: my annual take-home pay is quite a bit less that $60,000, with which I support myself and two other adults, one with significant medical expenses not fully covered by Medicare or our private medical insurance. We do okay - much better than many, many Americans - but our lifestyle doesn't include many "frills," and - even though we don't buy cigarettes, soft drinks, or much snack food - over one-third of our cash goes to groceries. Each month, we have less than $1000 that isn't specifically committed to something. That doesn't mean it's discretionary - almost every bit of it goes to necessities; but what those necessary items are changes from month to month. So, one hundred dollars, or $50, or even $25 mean quite a bit to me - as they do to the majority of American citizens.

   It isn't just the money, however. I admit to buying things I really didn't need, and contributing to causes when I really couldn't afford it. What really bothers me is that you want the money for political advertising. Let me share a fact with you that - apparently - is known to no one in the world but me: paid advertising doesn't pay. Paid POLITICAL advertising must be near the bottom of a long list of unprofitable advertising investments.

*  *  *

   I suspect I am somewhat more resistant to advertising than the "average American," but I don't think I'm unique. Advertisements (for almost anything) that come in the mail almost never get into the house - my recycling bin is just a short detour from the direct line from my mailbox to my front door. In this age of both personal and electronic scams, and of overstated capabilities and quality of workmanship, why would I respond positively to a pretty brochure from somebody I know absolutely nothing about? Similarly, I seldom watch commercials on TV. If I do, and I find them clever or amusing, I often remember they are clever or amusing, but don't remember what they are advertising. If I see a commercial more than once an hour (and some are on half a dozen times an hour), I often put the product on my "don't buy" list. If I happened to be interested in a certain brand of soup, mouthwash, toilet paper, erectile dysfunction aid, or blood pressure medicine, I think I would know it by the third or fourth time I heard about it. For me, most paid advertising is not positive; it is negative.

   Now, take political advertising. Is there anyone who gets a political card or letter in the mail who doesn't immediately recognize it as either a plea for money, or a meaningless few words about how good the candidate is, or how bad the opposition is? On TV, even if the message isn't an outright lie, it is likely greatly overstated or distorted - and meaningless, as far as telling what a candidate has done, will do, will try to do, or can do. Besides, it doesn't usually matter who you are; in the United States, we vote so tightly by political affiliation that someone registered in the other party will probably not believe your ad, and certainly will not vote for you.

   Those who have made Advertising one of the main pillars of Capitalism - i.e. those who sell advertising - have told us that "name recognition" is one of the great benefits of advertising. But in recent times almost no one votes for a person; they vote for their party. I know who the Democratic incumbents and candidates are - they will have a "D" by their names. In addition to the fact that I, and most others, will vote by the "Ds" and the "Rs," one has to wonder if the "name recognition" one gets from most political ads is the kind of  "recognition" a politician really wants.

*   *   *

   I hear all kinds of figures for the amount of money spent on political ads. For example, CNN recently reported that the two Presidential candidates had spent $2.5 million through August, just on internet ads. By mid-September, the Obama and Romney campaigns are said to have spent $591 million on television ads (reported on MSNBC). These are the figures for just the  Presidency, not the funds spent on other candidates, and not the millions spent by outside support groups that do not "count" as official party expenditures. I've never seen any accounting of how much money goes into political advertising other than on TV or the internet, but I suspect it is substantial.

   Apparently, most of this advertising money is intended to sway potential voters not yet committed to one of the major parties. If the polls are correct, the number of  these "undecideds" decreases with every election. For the upcoming election, most of the pollsters seem to think that undecideds include maybe 6 to 8 percent of the total number of people likely to vote. If the same number of votes are cast in 2012 as in the 2008 Presidential election, that's less than 10 million votes that are "up for grabs." Actually, it's probably far fewer than that. A recent UCLA-Vanderbilt study (Bartels and Varick, New York Times, Newsweek,  20 July 2012) estimated that only about 30 percent of undecideds  - maybe 3 million - are really "independents." The rest call themselves uncommitted, but it is almost certain that 4 million will eventually vote Democrat and 3 million will vote Republican. And we're still not down to the actual number of "swing votes:" only 11 states have enough undecided voters to make a difference in the election outcome. Because the election is not decided by the number of individual votes cast (the "popular vote"), but by the Electoral College,  it is almost certain that only six states are really in the running to decide which side the final tally will favor. In the end, less than 1 million currently "undecided" voters will give us our next President (Paul Begala, in 16 July 2012).

   So, all those millions that have been spent, and those millions left to spend before November, are meant to convince 1 million voters to support one party or the other? Just counting TV and the internet, that's  already over $500 per person. Maybe in politics-think that's not too much to pay to buy a vote, but are ads really that significant in helping voters make up their minds? Popular punditry seems to think that many of the undecideds have not made up their minds because they aren't that interested and aren't yet paying attention. Ads that have aired to date probably haven't significantly influenced them. Assuming that they do eventually vote (not a certainty), they may see something in an upcoming ad that will make them "like" or "dislike" a certain candidate. However, most will either revert to their usual party of choice, or will decide to vote for CHANGE. The hope that the next one in office will do better than the incumbent clearly favors the challengers; if you're the incumbent, you can expect to lose most of those votes, no matter how much or how well you advertise. That probably leaves a relatively few undecideds who will sit down at this late date, and try to make an educated assessment of the issues and candidates. Harking back to my original point: are political ads really going to be important ingredients in a informed, educated decision?

*   *   *

   I don't really know how advertising affects political campaigns.  I don't know how accurate the voter profiles are, and I don't have a clue as to what the total spending figure (in all media) has been. One thing I do know is that - considering the State of our Union - the whole process is obscene.

   Over 15 percent of Americans (more than 46 million people) are judged to be living below the "poverty line," established in 2012 as $23,000 for a family of four. Homes are still being foreclosed on, and while the jobless rate has declined somewhat, there are still millions of Americans without jobs - and with little likelihood of finding work soon.  Our roads, bridges, and other public facilities are dangerously neglected. No matter what spin anybody tries to put on it, it is a fact that many who once pursued "the American Dream" would be happy just to escape from "the American Nightmare."

   So - whether we like you or not, whether we favor your objectives and actions over others - how do you think your appeals for money strike us? How do you think news of your $25,000 a person fund-raiser luncheons -more than many American families make in a year - are received? What do you think we think when we learn that  about $600 million have been spent (just on TV and internet ads) to try to sway what really amounts to less than a million potential voters? When we consider that $600 million could elevate nearly 50,000 families from poverty to - if not "comfort" - at least relative security, are we likely to cheer you on toward victory, or are we more likely to think of you all as badly out of touch sons of bitches who don't really understand us or care one bit about us once you get our votes? Does it even register with you that we are only voting for you and your party because we feel "the other guys" understand America and Americans even less than you do?

*   *   *

   Now, look: most of us are not naive. As children, we knew that - no matter what our mothers said - whether or not we ate our vegetables would have no effect  on "the starving children of India." Similarly, we don't believe that those willing to fork out $25,000 for a political lunch would - if given the choice - give the same amount to help a family in need, buy school supplies, or help repair a bridge. Still, one has to wonder: if the leaders of a political party could convince their moneyed constituents that overt, tangible support for "worthy causes" could buy more votes than television ads - and would buy goodwill as well as votes - would there be room in electoral politics for The Grand Gesture? Think of it: instead of meaningless 30-second ads positioned between commercials for suppositories and dog food, you could buy longer time slots, use them to inform of the good works your backers were actually doing - that's called "putting your money where your mouth is" - and you would have quite a bit of money left over to do some of that philanthropy. My generally cynical nature can't see it happening, but..........

   I hope you win in November. I hope a whole bunch of Democrats win. But you'll have to do it without my $25. I may use it to put a couple gallons of gas in my one car, a 2003 model. (It still runs pretty good.)

Sincerely, Sandy Wilbur

 P. S. I live in Oregon. This isn't a "swing state," so we don't hear much from you. Oh, and the winners of elections are usually projected before our votes have even been considered.  Sometimes I feel a little left out - sort of like a second-class citizen - but, hey, I guess you politicians know best. SRW.


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