What can you get for a billion bucks? Well, the presidency, apparently.
Final campaign finance numbers show Barack Obama and Mitt Romney each spent more than $1 billion on their quests for the presidency, which is — not surprisingly — a new record.
One of them won, of course, and the other lost. But we can be assured that future campaigners and fundraisers will forget about the loss. Four years from now, and four years from that, and four years from THAT, presidential aspirants will go into the race convinced that it takes more than a billion dollars to win the office.
Hardly anyone will mention that it takes the same amount to lose it.
What a waste. Ninety percent of the voters had their minds made up before the campaigning even began. Most Republicans knew they would vote for their party's nominee; most Democrats knew they would vote for Obama in a second term. So the bulk of that money was spent trying to convince a minority of independents and "undecideds" to tilt one way or the other.
And, in the end, a storm called Sandy may have swayed as many fence-sitters as did all of those hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of campaign ads.
When will we end this embarrassing excess of money in politics? When will we as a nation conclude that casino mogul Sheldon Adelson spending $95 million to get a Republican in the White House isn't a celebration of "free speech," it's an acknowledgment that, in America, the rich have their thumb on the scale?
Sure, it's nice to know that Adelson couldn't tip things his way in the end, but there are plenty of rich guys tilting things the other direction, too. And while some truly believe it's for the good of the country, few of them are giving millions to candidates out of concern for you. They're investing their money in politics, and they expect it to pay off.
It's not just at the national level. It costs $50,000 to run a serious campaign for Santa Rosa City Council these days, and a minimum $200,000 for Sonoma County supervisor. While there are plenty of people who donate $50 or $100 because they have a friendship or a belief in the candidate, the big checks are coming from unions and real estate developers and contractors who make their money off of local government. These are the campaign investors.
I'm not suggesting that any of our elected leaders trade their votes for those campaign contributions. But big checks do buy access and attention for those who write them. And the knowledge that big spenders such as Adelson or the local SEIU or chamber of commerce will give their money to somebody else becomes a serious consideration for politicians who know that money often determines winners and losers on election day.
Some will argue that it all evens out in the end. After all, Obama and Romney each had about $1 billion spent on their campaigns. In Sonoma County's hotly contested race for the 1st District seat on the Board of Supervisors, Susan Gorin won despite apparently spending less than John Sawyer.
But the point isn't as much about the outcome as it is about the process. When a single person can spend tens of millions of dollars on a presidential race — or even a capped-by-law $2,625 on a county supervisor's race — it dilutes the power of the average person's vote. It discourages the participation of those of us who can't write big checks, and it inflates the influence of those who can.