The New Soft Money

Just in time for the midterm elections, Ohio State University researchers have published the first comprehensive report on the explosion of independent campaign spending, as told by politicians, elected officials and campaign operatives in their own words.

All agreed that outside spending has dramatically changed the political landscape -- often for the worse. "No one's saying, 'Here's $50 million for a good compromise," said former Rep. Dan Boren (D-Okla.).

Among the findings in "The New Soft Money: Outside Spending in Congressional Elections" are:

  • Outside groups do much of the dirty work in congressional campaigns, primarily running negative ads. But campaigns don't actually like all this independent spending since it makes it harder for candidates to maintain their message. Staffers noted that outside groups made campaigns "dumber and sillier" and led a "scorched earth" approach that had little regard for regional political differences or long-term consequences.
  • Members of Congress see independent spending as a threat "for those who refuse to toe the line of outside groups." Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.)" said, "The question you're asking is do they threaten you, and the answer is they don't have to. They threaten you -- they're threatening because you know what they can do.
  • Though the law says "coordination" is illegal, there is a high degree of cooperation between outside groups and congressional campaigns. Former Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) called so-called independent groups "just nonsense." He told researchers, "If you look at who makes up these organizations, on all sides, they're loaded with political operatives. They know the way these campaigns are run, modern campaigns. They can see for themselves what's up on the air. They can see the polling, a lot of it's public. Some of it's, you know not public but pretty much the same thing as what's public. So they don't need to talk to anybody in the campaign in order to know what to do."
  • Outside money is making our political system even polarized. One staffer said, "So when you're spending all of your time fundraising, you don't get to know your colleagues. You don't get to know what they think and how they reason. You're not spending time debating issues over dinner. You also don't hang out and have your families get to know each other. And it becomes a lot easier to demonize someone and of course the media loves that and picks it up."

To learn more about how we got here and what's next, read the full report here.