Campaign spending, timing threatens Minnesota voters

As Democrats and Republicans set their sights on the 2002 U.S. Senate race, it looks as though Minnesota voters will be the next victims of hugely expensive, ridiculously long-running campaign advertising. Voters will not choose between incumbent Democrat Paul Wellstone and Republican challenger Norm Coleman until November, but by then they will have been watching campaign ads since February.

This stretches the election to an unprecedented nine months, causing experts to predict it will be the most costly in state history. Republicans and Democrats have thus far spent $852,000 and $676,000 respectively, and six months of campaigning remain. Just a decade ago, the average cost for winning a U.S. Senate campaign was less than $500,000. That number jumped to more than $1 million in 1996 and culminated, thus far, in the 2000 election’s spending frenzy, which was highlighted by the New York races. The winner of the most publicized race, Hillary Clinton, spent $29,871,577. And she had spent less than her opponent, Rick Lazio, who offered up more than $40 million for his lost bid. Unfortunately, it seems this infection is spreading to Minnesota.

While campaign ads can be beneficial to voters – helping raise awareness of candidates and issues – starting this early is detrimental to a fair political process, driving up costs and making the ads more
subject to triviality because of their sheer numbers. Said a Coleman campaign member: “You want to define yourself before anyone else does it for you.”

What “defin(ing) yourself” entails, however, goes beyond disseminating the candidate’s platform and moves inevitably to negative inferences to the opponent. Predictably, once Coleman began the race for the airwaves, Wellstone followed. One Wellstone aid, in a bleak prophecy, said, “No charge Coleman can make will go unanswered.”

Because both parties have personal stakes in this election – viewed as key in controlling the Senate – they are willing to pour unprecedented resources into their campaigns. Under these circumstances, there is no telling what the final tab will be. Although this level of spending might not become the norm in future Minnesota elections, it sets a frightening precedent. Spending is already sky-high and does not need to increase because of the new advertising maxim proclaiming “the earlier the better.”

This practice also limits Senate and other key races to the two main parties that can afford this extravagant tactic. Any third-party candidate will not have a prayer at equal name recognition or funding, and this limits voters’ knowledge of candidates to those with the largest resources. Additionally, with so much riding on an election so uncertain, there is no way an ad campaign this long can avoid mudslinging and other underhanded tactics. By election time, the key issues on which voters need to be informed will have been thoroughly covered, and the logical next step for both will be to attempt to dismantle the platform touted by the other.

The bottom line is, in order to maintain a fair, legitimate democratic process in elections, spending of this sort of magnitude cannot be accepted. When parties at the national level pick up the tab, enabling early, exorbitant campaigns, the voters of Minnesota no longer choose the candidates; the party with the biggest billfold does. The national trend might be steering in the direction of early, high-cost campaigns, but there is no place for it in Minnesota.